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How to Train Your Wine Palate

Training your wine palate isn't difficult. Earlier this year, I ventured to Florence to meet with expert Filippo Bartolotta to discuss simple ways to gain a better understanding of what's in your glass. This article fist appeared in Wine Enthusiast, August 2018.

Filippo Bartolotta has walked miles of countryside in the pursuit of understanding terroir, and he’s spent years tasting flavors to find the building blocks of vintages. The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET)-certified sommelier is based in Florence, Italy, where he curates wine experiences around the world, as co-founder of the luxury wine tour group, Le Baccanti, and in collaboration with chefs like Alice Waters and Massimo Bottura.

In his latest venture, he tackles the topic of how to train your palate in a newly published book, Di Che Vino Sei (What Kind of Wine Are You). By breaking down eight personality archetypes, Bartolotta believes wine lovers of all levels of expertise can get in groove with their palates. This practice of “wine training” has worked for the likes of actor Dustin Hoffman and former President Barack Obama.

Wine training is exactly what you’re likely thinking: Hours and lots of bottles dedicated to tasting wines. Part emotional and part physical, wine training is about pace, consistency, dedication and exposure. And it’s not just for the academics, collectors or would-be sommeliers, it’s for anyone who enjoys a great pour.

“The truth of a bottle of wine is when you are sitting down and sipping glass after glass, just seeing what happens,” says Bartolotta. Instead of having an experience bound by rigid rules, the only requirement he has for participants is a healthy desire to drink wine. Here are three of his surefire tips.

Don’t worry about memorization

The palate is a complex experiential combination of the four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste and feel. To those, Bartolotta adds another a fifth dimension, experience. It starts out simply, as participants open a bottle of wine to see how and why they like it.

Memorization is the least important aspect. More important is tasting and more tasting to train the palate to recognize flavors, which breeds confidence and natural instincts.

“I don’t like [to guess wines], you miss the whole the concept,” he says. “Instead, it’s all about developing the gut feeling, because your first impression is the most accurate one.”

Establish a daily practice

To understand and identify the nuances of wines, vintages and producers requires daily dedication. Bartolotta has spent thousands of hours in morning-long tasting sessions to solidify his gut feelings. But anyone can train these skills, whether with sommeliers or on their own.

Not many people have the time to taste every single day, of course. Bartolotta suggests that wine lovers dedicate a few hours weekly or monthly to hang out with good friends and great bottles.

Pick a few bottles from the same region, producer or grape variety, sample them and talk about it. Bartolotta suggests doing it again and again until it becomes part of your life. He says that after consistent wine enjoyment with no pressure, the palate becomes more sophisticated. Flavors become familiar, and instinct develops into intuition.

Eventually, tasting becomes a mindfulness practice, says Bartolotta. By the third or fourth glass, it becomes, as Bartolotta says, “a Matrix moment and you’re Neo, synergistically knowing what you are tasting.” The key is to continue to taste and drink, and to hang out with friends is a great reason to expand the selection of wines and experiences.

Compare and contrast

Pop open two semi-related bottles at the same time, say a bottle of Champagne and a bottle of Prosecco. Compare and contrast simultaneously to help you discover subtleties to what you like and don’t like. Otherwise, if you have a good bottle tonight and another next week, it’s difficult it to say which style you really prefer.

Also, get vertical. Much like tasting different styles from the same producer, vertical tastings are when you taste the same style from different years. Tasting the same label, but from three or more different vintages can help understand how the weather and other variables can affect the wine. And given the region, you can also ascertain whether you like hotter vintages versus cooler ones.

Experienced or entry-level, wine training is less about becoming an expert at blindly identifying wines, and more about self-understanding and preferences. As Bartolotta believes, wine was not invented simply to be tasted, it was meant to be enjoyed.

in Florence and want to taste wine with Filippo? Easy.  His company Le Baccanti organizes customized luxury cultural food & wine vacations and day tours in Tuscany and Italy- so yes, you can sit down at a table with him for a few hours eating, drinking and talking wine.  I did and totally developed a wine crush.

J.K. Place Hotel Will Make Everyone Fall More in Love with Florence

Florence is a dream destination for so many, but the question is where to rest your head. Here is my latest hotel review for Fathom: JK Place Florence.

Warm up by the fireplace. All photos courtesy of J.K. Place.

FLORENCE — Florence enchants, mesmerizes, and beguiles. It is a city for those who love the fairytale Italian dream of warm sunsets, flowing hair, and great dinners. For centuries, it has been the requisite Grand Tour stop for literature lovers, art travelers, and cruisers. For me, Florence was always an easy day trip from my home in Rome when I needed a quick culture hit in the form of a Renaissance painting or an occasional contemporary show at Palazzo Strozzi. I staunchly refused to allow myself to fall in like with the city. And then a recent overnight stay lured me into loving Florence.

Florentine pillow talk takes all kinds of shapes, and one of the most charming is boutique hotel J.K. Place. In 2003, hotelier Ori Kafir opened the doors of what would become the first in a mini empire (other the JKs are in Rome and Capri) with the idea of giving guests a pied-a-terre in the middle of one of Italy's most visited cities. He wanted something different from the grand dame styles of European hotels — something cozier and chicer, though just as elegant and impeccable. He wanted a home that was quintessentially Florentine in both style and hospitality.

J.K. Place still holds up to its original tenets. The townhouse is an easy respite, perfectly located for both historic city center strolls and out-of-town trips, while its beautiful design by internationally acclaimed local designer Michele Conan upholds its contemporary vibe. More importantly, it is so Florentine, down to every detail — from the bottled water they serve to the thousands of books about art, culture, and style scattered around, many focused on the city and its artisans.

A Florentine-worthy entrance.

Bathe with a view in the Penthouse bathroom. 

Book It

Rates start from €440. Click here to book.

Checking In

Location
A five-minute walk from Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Florence's main train station, J.K. Place has a front row view of Piazza Santa Maria Novella, an open square with the beautiful Santa Maria Novella church and its very cool Renaissance facade designed by Leon Battista Alberti in the 1470s. The piazza is a busy hub for foot traffic and buskers.

Hotel Style
Florentine elegance, which translates to effortless style in all things aesthetic. J.K. mixes contemporary with classic — anachronistic yet very 21st century — to make you feel like you are in the home of Florence's most peripatetic art collector and fanciful flaneur.

This Place Is Perfect For
Everyone. No, really, everyone will find themselves at home here, especially those with refined sensibilities.

But Not So Perfect For
Those who insist on having a room with a view of the Arno.

Enjoy a private fireplace in master room 12.

Live your Florentine dreams in room 12.

What's on Site
J.K. Place is a home, an impeccably stylish one, that invites you to hang out. Just before the entrance is the outdoor J.K. Lounge, a teak terrace facing the piazza, a great people-watching lunch spot or cocktail-hour hangout. The ground level is a labyrinth of gorgeously styled lounges, salons, and libraries, with beautiful artwork and to-die-for art books and magazines, comfortable sofas, and cashmere throws. Late night, I discovered the terrace lounge, J.K.'s sexy rooftop bar that puts you eye-to-eye with Santa Maria Novella's flourishes.

Food + Drink
The J.K. Lounge hosts an enviable buffet breakfast, an overflowing cornucopia of healthy fruit and home-baked treats, as well a la carte selections. From lunchtime through evening, the lounge becomes J.K. Cafe, a tasteful, health-focused eatery that wows you with traditional Tuscan dishes like pasta al sugo finto and contemporary favorites, including an excellent club sandwich. Cocktails, you ask? J.K. seems like it was designed specifically for enjoying a well-crafted martini, a vintage wine, or a Negroni sbagliato, whether in the Lounge, the Champagne Bar (the cozy living room adjacent to the lounge), or the rooftop terrace. Food and beverage director Andrea Pieri is a walking gastronomic and enological archive. Ask him about the food, the wines, the water, the cocktails, and chances are he'll have a good story to tell.

Number of Rooms: 20 guest rooms and suites.

In-Room Amenities: Sublime linens, towels, and robes. Excellent and fast WiFi and LED televisions. A mini bar abundantly stocked with free snacks and drinks. Cashmere blankets from a local merchant. Rooms scented by local perfumer Dr. Vranjes.

Drawbacks: The branded power strip outlet is a bit outdated and wouldn't send any power to my iPad and iPhone. I'd love to see a tech update.

Standout Detail: It would be easy to say the Terrace, but the standout for me is J.K.'s Library, which has every Taschen, Phaidon, and art book I covet. Even more standout was the staff's knowledge of their books and their willingness to provide more.

 Dinner on the terrace overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Dinner on the terrace overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Even Florentine stairs are aesthetic.

Checking Out

Florence has been Tuscany's self-proclaimed It town since it birthed the Renaissance. Italy's top artists and architects of the 15th and 16th centuries remain well represented in its architecture, museums, churches, and palazzi, thanks to the shrewd support of the city's favorite families, starting with the Medici. And Florence keeps up that vibe today, nourishing 21st century artisans — fabulous leather workers, printmakers, jewelers, bookmakers, and more.

What to Do Nearby
Honestly, what's not to do? J.K. Place is within easy walking distance to just about everything you want to see in Florence, a very walkable city. Across Piazza Santa Maria Novella is the underrated Museo Novecento, a museum focusing 20th-century art, while around the corner is Palazzo Strozzi, an arts space that is lately lining up blockbuster shows. Of course, you're going to want to walk around Piazza del Duomo, where you cannot miss the green, pink, and white marble panels of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the gorgeous Brunelleschi dome, and the museum. Definitely make time for Opera Dumo, the Duomo's amazing museum with reconstructions of how Brunelleschi made the dome, as well as Michelangelo's penultimate pietà and incredible restored artwork. Have a Hannibal moment in Piazza della Signoria, then drop by Gucci Garden for a peek into the Guccci mind. Window shop on Via Tornabuoni, or cross the river to Oltrarno, Florence's hippest neighborhood.

Good to Know
General manager Claudio Meli knows everyone and everything there is to know in Florence. Just ask him. In fact, Meli is the author of J.K. Essential Guide to Florence, his love letter to the city in the form of an intrepid, pocket guide book that he's produced for guests. Keep in mind that Florence feels busy with tourists throughout the year, at its most congested at Easter and spring break through June. Although there's more room to breathe in July and August when Florentines flee the city for coastal breezes, the infernally hot temperatures make a visit not fun at all.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Either take a train into Firenze-Santa Maria Novella train station or fly into Florences’s international airport, four kilometers from the city center.

Getting Around
Walk. Yes, Florence has buses and taxis, but if you are really here to enjoy the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes of Florence, all you need are your feet. For day trips around Tuscany, you can reach cities like Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and Arezzo via regional trains. If you're interested in exploring the great hilltops, beach communities, strade del vino (wine routes), and picturesque towns like Orbetello, Volterra, and Montepulciano under the Tuscan sun, your best bet is hiring a car.

Make the most of the lounge and Italian baked-goods.

Dine in true Florentine style in the breakfast room.

The Florence Experiment: Contemporary Art Slides Through The Renaissance Town

Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn! - Better Off Dead, 1985

Merry-go-round, monkey bars, teeter-totter, geodome, tether balls, swings. Of all the places I could play at the pulbic playground, my favorite was always the slide.  Ours was metal, super slick from decades of descent and most likely not up to any 21st century building code.   We fought to stand at the top and lord over all the playground serfs, and we never waited for the kid in front to get safely out of the way.    Our slide iced over in the winter so we banked snow at the base to test out the human snow plow technique.   In the summer,  the metal shoot was scalding hot from hours baking in the sun, and every method to avoid skin contact was attempted, only to find that lifting up your hands and legs caused three glorious seconds of maximum velocity.  Scary?  Stupid? Dangerous? Yeah, plus panic and pure adrenaline rush.

Playgrounds don't have seem that enticing thrill of danger any more.  Structures are well made, perfectly portioned and the ground covering is reinforced plastic flooring so that no one falls and breaks an arm.  Maybe that's a good thing, but when I stand atop today's slides, I miss the fear that something bad could, but probably wouldn't, happen.  And I think Carsten Höller does too. 

Höller makes thrills.   His beautifully designed slides, carousels and more are all about perception and experience, and are exaggeratedly reminiscent of playgrounds past.  And this time he's experimenting with more than just nostalgia, he's playing on emotions in a Renaissance palazzo in Florence.   The Florence Experiment, a double cork screw careening down the internal courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi, is wit plus a bit of biology.   Teaming up with Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, Höller sends sliders on an emotional rush strapped with a seedling.  A ten-second rush of maximum velocity in a metal shoot, you feel like a kid again.  

Here's where it gets brainy. Once you've finished, you're invited to bring your bean seedling to Palazzo Strozzi's underground laboratory where Mancuso's team analyzes the effects of your emotional experience on the growth of the plant.  And if you want, you can stick around and watch film clips based on your slide reaction- terror (clips like The Shining) or joy (Some Like It Hot)  - in a glass-enclosed viewing room where the effects of your emotions are funneled out to plants fastened to Palazzo Strozzi's external facade.  Sounds hokey? It could be, but it's fun and if you take a step back, it's pretty damn clever.  Every knows that emotions have the ability to bring down the house.

And guess what?  It's about time art made us laugh, and better yet, scream.  For Höller,  "the madness of a slide, that “voluptuous panic,” is a kind of joy. It is an experience with value far beyond the confines of a museum, or a playground. It might be time, for all our sakes, to begin to explore exactly how far that might be." I agree. Let's do it.

Photo credit: Palazzo Strozzi.

The Florence Experiment

Palazzo Strozzi, through August 26

For those looking to discover more of Tuscany, Palazzo Strozzi is more than just a museum.  It is keystone to Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi APPS a coalition of personalities, institutions and firms that  support the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi , Florence and its "made-in-Florence" treasures through multi-cultural projects.

 

View from room 516, Hotel Savoy.

R & R:   Rooms and Restaurants

Room 516 at the Hotel Savoy.  516 is a deluxe room with the coveted view of Brunelleschi's dome, and you can bet we were hanging out the windows every hour on the hour just to listen to the bells.  We chose Hotel Savoy for its unbeatable Piazza della Repubblica location, one minute walk to Palazzo Strozzi, and an easy walk to everything else - Piazza della Signoria and Stazione Santa Maria Novella, the Giardini Boboli and San Frediano.  Earlier in 2018, the Savoy went through an aggressive renovations which refreshed the rooms to a more airy, organic vibe and increased space.  Best hotel perk? Velorbis bicycles with Brooks saddles.  I am hoping that the next I stay,  Savoy and Velorbis will have added a back seat.

Antica Ristoro Cambi, a yesteryear osteria in Florence's San Frediano niche neighborhood in the Oltrarno.  Cozy, casual, and absolutely no pretensions with an open kitchen counter,  every time I enter Cambi, I feel like I've walked into someone's home.  For my group, the  focus is always singular:  a proper bistecca alla fiorentina, 800 grams of Chianina beef grilled on extremely high temperatures and garnished with salt.  Along with the perfect bistecca, Cambi serves traditional Tuscan dishes- homemade tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce, tripe and even local favorite lampredotto.  Personally, I don't go there.

The laboratory.

Florence's Hotel Savoy Reopens with an Gorgeous New Pucci-Designed Lobby

View from the Grand View suite.

Firenze, I write with a sigh.  Florence has been on my mind again and again this year.  And initially, I attributed my knee-jerk sigh (which first started as a groan) to shrewd marketing resulting magazine editorials and "top ten in the world" lists.  As I started visiting the city over the past six month, a day trip here, and over night trip there, what I realize is that I am definitely sighing in happiness.  I walk around the City of Lilies, and I see a steadfastly resolution to maintaining its identity borne from the tenements of its Medici heyday while incorporating the 21st century in its way of life.  I easily sense a palpable pride its 500-year-history of artisans, shown through active investment in its modern artists and artisans, something that needs to be replicated in other Italian cities. 

For Condè Nast Traveler (April 2018),  I met up with Laudomia Pucci, daughter of famed designer Emilio Pucci, and Olga Polizzi, Director of Design for Rocco Forte Hotels, about their collaboration on the new look to the historic Hotel Savoy, an investment of creative and Florentine artisans. Enjoy the story and scroll through for my brief review on Hotel Savoy.

The storied hotel in the heart of Florence is looking fresher than ever.

Florence’s Hotel Savoy is back—and you can’t miss it. Following a six-month closure, the famed hotel has reopened its doors today, with a rebooted look that plays on its century-long history as the Grand Dame of Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica. Even better: They teamed up with Emilio Pucci Design for the newly over-the-top main entrance, a first for the storied fashion house.

“It always starts with a scarf,” says Laudomia Pucci, Emilio Pucci’s daughter and image director of the Florentine fashion house known for brilliantly patterned and colorful designs.

Here’s how the story begins. Pucci imagined a new scarf, with the images of both the Hotel Savoy and Piazza Della Repubblica while The Savoy’s Director of Design, Olga Polizzi, handled the architectural aspects of restoring the grand lobby to bring back the original grandeur of the entrance with raised ceilings and exposed columns. Then Polizzi washed it in an entirely white palette, giving Pucci the freedom to accent the space with vivid Mediterranean colors—a medley of blues, blacks, and even a dash of pink woven through custom furniture pieces, pillows, and a handmade statement carpet. “The colors always tell a story with a narrative of design,” Pucci says.

The Laudomia Pucci scarf that started it all. Courtesy of Hotel Savoy.

While the lobby is more grand than ever before, the reboot is also a tale of a dramatic downsizing. The hotel’s room count was reduced from 102 to 80, giving Polizzi the freedom to reconfigure four Grand View suites, each of which is a stunner of a #RoomWithAView.

The new Presidential Suite, a palatial top-floor ensemble of light colors and marbles, hand-painted dendritic wallpaper, handcrafted furnishings from Italian brands (including Chelini Firenze and C&C Milano), and curious vintage knick knacks that Polizzi handpicked at Florence’s Mercato dei Pulci. And then there’s the Panoramic suite, a duplex pied-à-terre, that sits eye-level to Brunelleschi’s dome.

“The Savoy is reflection of the personality of the city,” says Polizzi. “Florence is fun—she’s the whimsical, naughty, younger sister of Rome.”

As for that Pucci scarf that started the story, its image is now printed—in blue and fuchsia—on the tabletops of Irene, the Savoy’s terrace cafe on Piazza della Repubblica, which is the place for people watching in the city. So while the new lobby and new suites are grand, that’s where we’ll be enjoying the view this spring.

 View Suite. Courtesy of Hotel Savoy.

Grand View Suite. Courtesy of Hotel Savoy.

Junior Deluxe Suite. Courtesy of Hotel Savoy.

Junior Deluxe Suite. Courtesy of Hotel Savoy.

Why Reserve?

Hotel Savoy is a great luxury hotel for those who want to be in the very center of everything, desire white glove pampering and love old school grandeur.  The price tag is high but it is worth it for its location, and only if your wallet can handle it.  On the corner of Piazza della Repubblica, across from my favorite Caffe Gilli, and a two-minute walk to the Duomo and the Grand Museo del Duomo, Hotel Savoy has got an enviable geo-tag.   In five minutes, you can walk to Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza della Signoria, and Baslica of San Lorenzo whereas in 15 minutes (depending on the direction) you'll see David at the Accademia and Fra Angelico at San Marco museum, enjoy the Santa Croce neighborhood and the Sant'Ambrogio market,  and peruse the artisan boutiques the Oltrarno neighborhood.  You'll have to add more minutes walking for Piazzale Michelangelo and Boboli Gardens. 

The hotel vibe is chic as soon as you walk in the door, and more so with Polizzi/Pucci reboot.  Though this is an old school grand hotel, the vibe is intimate and rooms feel homey, as in the stylish home you would love to own. The upgrade means more spacious rooms and lighter colors.  And though there is no spa,  the basement is home to a lounge/sitting room and a brand new multi-space gym- four room enfilade with hardwood floors, light colors and great Techno gym workout machines. One of the rooms is a designated open space for personal training and yoga sessions.

Bottom line:  Old school grandeur just got a contemporary reboot while maintaining true to its impeccable, century-long hospitality.

Designers Olga Polizzi and Laudomia Pucci.

Fashion Find: Gucci Garden, Florence

This Store Rejects Labels

Gucci Garden by Florence's Palazzo della Signoria. Courtesy of Gucci.

This article originally appeared in American Way Magazine, April 2018.

Gucci transforms a palazzo into a multifaceted retail fantasy

Gucci has fun blurring the lines between fashion, food, history and art with its latest enterprise, Gucci Garden. The space, which recently opened in the 14th-century Palazzo della Mercanzia in Florence, explores the Italian brand’s past and future, and rocks a trattoria with a menu by three-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura (pictured right).

While an on-site boutique sells items only available at the Gucci Garden, creative director Alessandro Michele insists the project is less about creating a retail environment and more about dreaming up a fantasy world— with the Gucci brand at its center. “The Garden is real,” he says, “but it belongs above all to the mind.”


Read the April issue of American Way magazine here.

Boutique. Courtesy of Gucci.

Massimo Bottura's Gucci Osteria. Courtesy of Gucci.

Artist Jayde Fish's whimsical murals. Courtesy of Gucci.

Did I mention there is a cinema? Courtesy of Gucci.

There's Something About Florence

IMG_3804.JPG
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.

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.

Bangkok
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).

Milan
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

Florence
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

Rome
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.

Typecast: Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Firenze

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I have a thing about letters, type and font. Vintage, die-cast lead signs make my heart swell. It's no wonder I have a huge crush on Louise Fili and only frequent bars with great signage [sadly, this bar just closed].  As long as there are gorgeous letters, I am happy-- so you can imagine why I was incredibly happy to have a one hour layover at Florence's central train station Stazione Santa Maria Novella.  Santa Maria Novella is a cache of incredible 1920s and 1930s type from the standard lean Fascist lead font and neon exit sign to the  gorgeous serif numbers that hide throughout the station. Bonus points for the striped orange/coral and cream marble floor.

An Inside Look at St. Regis Grand European Expansion

Being based out of Rome and travel writing means I have the pleasure and privilege of really getting to know Italy.  And sometimes that means its very best hotels- whether as a guest, reporter or just for cocktails. As I continue to focus my writing on the very best of Italy-- from luxury to local--  I'll be reviewing hotels for Forbes Travel, as well other publications.  And hopefully I have more opportunities to travel the Mediterranean in search of that perfect place to stay. Earlier this month, Forbes asked me to take a look at Starwood's St. Regis Grand hotels to see what changes have come and are ready for us: this article originally appeared in Forbes Travel on June 2 2015.

An Inside Look At St. Regis’ Grand European Expansion - Forbes Travel Guide

The St. Regis Istanbul Photo Courtesy of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc

There’s one thing for certain about The St. Regis: It’s insistent on providing luxury hotel experiences to as many corners of the planet as possible. In April, the brand welcomed The St. Regis Moscow Nikolskaya to the family. And that’s on top of already announcing 15 more new or newly renovated properties across the globe. To help you keep up with the surplus of sophistication, Forbes Travel Guide provides a closer look at the two new openings around the Mediterranean.

An Inside Look At St. Regis’ Grand European Expansion - Forbes Travel Guide

The St. Regis Venice San Clemente Palace, Photo Courtesy of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc

The St. Regis Venice San Clemente Palace The Venice hotel takes its place in the Italian triumvirate with the Rome and Florence properties. Following an extensive restoration, the San Clemente Palace re-opened in April 2015 as an incredible oasis just a 10-minute boat ride from St. Mark’s Square. The secluded island of San Clemente has always been a private retreat; its nearly 1,000-year history includes a monastery, military outpost, sanitarium and patrician guest house. And it is that rich millennium of exclusivity that San Clemente aims to repeat. The 189 guest rooms and suites showcase a beautiful combination of traditional Venetian refinement (terrazzo floors and brocades) with contemporary design. Particular attention was made to the island’s grounds. A swimming pool that’s surrounded by a lush garden and lounge area heightens the oasis vibe. Additionally, the San Clemente offers a grand terrace, tennis court, spa, children’s club and three restaurants.  CHANGED TO KEMPINSKI

The St. Regis Istanbul Meanwhile, crossing the seas that Casanova swam, Istanbul’s of-the-moment Nisantasi neighborhood welcomed this Art Deco-inspired gem in March 2015. The 118-room hotel is an homage to the grand hotels of a bygone age. With an exterior envisioned by Emre Arolat Architects and an interior highlighted by an incredible collection of art from the turn of the 20th century, the property proves nothing short of captivating. All rooms feature unique art pieces, while hanging like a cloud in the lobby is Supernova, a Lasvit-designed chandelier with 343 glass panels. Once all of the works in the public spaces and rooms are tallied, the new hotel easily makes for one of Turkey’s finest art collections. Of course, this Istanbul outpost has the same unparalleled personal butler service you’d find at other St. Regis addresses. The new property has Iridium, too, a spa with seven treatment rooms, indoor pools and a hammam. When you’re done with your massage, head over to one of The St. Regis Istanbul’s two marquee restaurants, St. Regis Brasserie and Spago by Wolfgang Puck, to complete the bespoke experience.

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Florence vs. Rome, Yahoo City Smackdown

This originally appeared in Yahoo Travel on Wednesday,  August 27, 2014.

City Smackdown: Florence vs. Rome

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which one is the best. Today, an Italian-flavored Smackdown: Florence vs. Rome. 

THE CASE FOR FLORENCE

By Nicky Swallow 

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In this corner: Florence (Photo: Andrea Zanchi/E+/Getty Images)

One of the world’s great art repositories, Florence proudly holds its own against Rome in spite of its diminutive size. Florence is so much more than just museums and monuments, and foodies, fashionistas, and fans of the good life will all be blown away by this compact gem of a city. You can walk almost everywhere that’s worth going, and thanks to our ex-mayor (now prime minister) Matteo Renzi, central Florence boasts one of the largest traffic-free urban areas in Europe, so you don’t have to contend with the fume-belching buses and bumper-to-bumper jams that are a constant in Rome. And if you want to combine your city break with a day in the country, a 10-minute drive will have you surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It can take hours to escape from Rome…

Population: 377,000.

Famous Faces: The Gucci family. The Ferragamo family. Roberto Cavalli. Matteo Renzi (Italian PM).

Related: 67 & Dumped: Photo Bombing in Florence, Italy

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Piazza della Repubblica, one of the architectural marvels you’ll see in Florence (Photo: Glowimages/Getty Images)

World-Class Art: Often dubbed “The Cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence has a concentration of fabulous art packed into a small space that is second to none. The Uffizi Gallery houses one of the world’s greatest collections of paintings (think iconic images such as Botticelli’s “Primavera” and Rosso Fiorentino’s lute-playing putto);the Galleria dell’Accademia is home to “David,” the most famous nude statue on the planet; and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo lists Ghiberti’s great bronze “Doors of Paradise” among its treasures. The churches are stuffed full of fabulous frescoes, and the streets and piazzas are lined with elegant palaces and architectural masterpieces such as Il Duomo, the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. You could stay in Florence a month and still not see it all.

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Looking at art on a scooter: there’s nothing more Florence than that (Photo: Sofie Delauw/Cultura/Getty Images)

Popular Way to Get Around Town: On foot. Florence is a small city, and you will find that nearly everywhere you want to go is contained within the compact Centro Storico. Bicycles are another good option (pick one up at Santa Maria Novella train station). But if you want to do it the Florentine way, rent a scooter from Alinari. Tired feet? Hop on one of the Lilliputian, eco-friendly bussini specially designed to negotiate the narrow streets in the center of town. Tickets cost €1,20 and are available from newsstands, bars, and tobacconists’ shops.

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Go ahead and call the Four Seasons “palatial.” It’s in a palace (Photo: Firenze CB/Flickr)

Sleep Tight: It may be small, but the Renaissance City has a wide variety of accommodation options that range from five-star hotels offering in-your-face luxury to B&B gems in family-owned palazzi. Top-of-the-pile options include the Four Seasons, housed in a Renaissance palace and set in the largest private garden in the city, and the St. Regis, which boasts rooms overlooking the Arno. Then there is the new, immaculately stylish riverside Ferragamo Portrait Suites, which is set to give the other top boutique contender, J.K. Place, a run for its money. The Rocco Forte-owned Hotel Savoy is a good choice if you want a supercentral location, and the Helvetia & Bristol offers old-school service and a retro atmosphere. For something a little more intimate, try Palazzo Galletti or the Loggiato dei Serviti, which occupy old palazzi. Or to get away from it all, book into the funky, minimalist Riva Lofts, a complex of converted artisan workshops on the south bank of the Arno, a 20-minute walk from town.

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Sorry, Milan. Florence takes a backseat to no Italian city when it comes to style (Photo: Thinkstock)

Fashion Pulse: Milan may grab the headlines when it comes to the catwalk, but Florence is traditionally the home of moda Italiana. Italy’s first fashion show was held in Florence in 1951. The Florentines are proud of their long artisan heritage, and their fashion sense is based firmly on quality and craftsmanship. During your time in the Renaissance City, you will be surrounded by beautifully dressed men and women oozing an innate sense of style and elegance, even when they are dressed in their sweats. It’s no coincidence that some of Italy’s top labels are Florentine: Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Pucci, and, of course (by adoption), Ferragamo.

Fabulous Food: Simple, earthy, and satisfying, traditional Florentine cuisine is based on seasonal local ingredients prepared with lashings of peppery Tuscan olive oil. Meals start with hearty bread, bean, and veg combos such as ribollita and pappa al pomodoro or pasta sauced with hare or wild boar. Next up is the city’s famous signature dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a vast T-bone eaten almost raw. Family-run Il Latini and subterranean Buca Lapi are good places to sample traditional dishes. In a hurry? Street food Florentine style means tripe and lampredotto (cow intestines), so man up and join the locals at one of the mobile trippaio stalls in the city center.

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Lampredotto is not vegan (yzhelen/Flickr)

Great Escapes: The classic day trip from Florence takes you south into the famous wine-growing region of Chianti. Need more art? Siena, Arezzo, Lucca, and Pisa all have magnificent churches and museums and are within easy reach of Florence. Beach bums should head west to the strip of coast known as the Versilia, where neat rows of deck chairs, sun beds, and parasols occupy the wide swaths of sand.

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The vineyards in Tuscany are a great detour from Florence (Photo: peter zelei/E+/Getty Images)

The Aperitivo Trail: The pre-dinner aperitivo craze hit Italy (and Florence) some years ago. The coolest way to start an evening out here is to head for one of the city’s buzzy bars, order an Aperol spritz (a Venetian cocktail of Aperol and prosecco), and dig into the buffet spread. In some places this just means a variety of nuts, chips, and olives, but others lay on a feast of hot and cold dishes. Up-market bars such as the East-West Fusion at the Gallery Hotel and the superelegant Atrium Bar at the Four Seasons bring an elegant selection of nibbles to your table; at rooftop bars SE.STO at the Westin Excelsior and La Terrazza at the Hotel Continentale, you get 360-degree views of the city with your drinks; Oltrarno shabby-chic stalwart Cabiria serves up a particularly generous buffet, while at Negroni, you get art and photography exhibits with your lethal Negroni cocktail. Favorite hang-out in laid-back Piazza Santo Spirito is Volume, an ex-woodcarver’s workshop, where the food offerings include delicious buckwheat crepes.

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Start your evening off right with a Aperol spritz (Darren Milligan & Brad Ireland/Flickr)

City on Celluloid: “I Vitelloni” (Federico Fellini, 1953), “Obsession” (Brian de Palma, 1976), “A Room With a View” (James Ivory, 1986), “Tea With Mussolini” (Franco Zeffirelli, 1999), “Hannibal” (Ridley Scott, 2001).

Born in London, Nicky Swallow moved to Florence for three months in 1981 to play the viola in the opera orchestra and never left. She has been writing about travel, food, wine, and life in Florence and the rest of Italy for 15 years, contributing to guidebooks for Frommer's, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley, and Insideout. She is the Florence expert for Simonseeks.com and Afar.com and a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveller (UK) and The Guardian.

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A Room With a View (Photo: Mary Evans/Merchant Ivory/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

THE CASE FOR ROME

By Erica Firpo

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And in this corner: Rome (Photo: John Harper/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Everyone loves a weekend visit to Florence, but what everyone really wants is to live in Rome. Rome is a chaotic convergence of beauty, history, culture, and conflict. For nearly 3,000 years, the city has fostered an amazing roll of artists and architects, actors and scientists, poets and politicians, with just the necessary amount of humor to make the good, bad, and ugly practically perfect. And within the last decade, Rome has worked to reinvent itself into a mecca for 21st-century culture and culinary delights, unveiling new contemporary museums, opening new restaurants, and renovating historic spaces. Its undeniable and best personality trait is independence, reflected in all its niche neighborhoods, like Testaccio, Monti, Trastevere, and even the historic center and Borgo.  And for that, Rome embraces you like a small town. In other words, it’s a 21st-century capital city with a hometown vibe.

Population:  2.8 million.

Famous Faces: What more could you want than the pope and Francesco Totti? After that, everyone else is just an extra. Other fabulous Rome residents include fashion’s Fendi sisters, Gucci’s Frida Giannini, and Valentino. The silver screen’s Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Raoul Bova, Gabriele Muccino, Sophia Loren, and Paolo Sorrentino also live here.

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Rome has Sophia Loren. Game over (Photo: isifa/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

World-Class Art: While masterpieces and monuments may be on almost every corner, church, and piazza, Rome is definitely not stuck in the past.  The city has an endless amount of museums, collections, and cultural sites covering a range of eras and genres from ancient to avant-garde.  Off the bat, Rome has bragging rights to underground first-century houses, a chapel decorated by Michelangelo, a tiny villa by Raphael, a collection of Caravaggio paintings, and a 21st-century climbable monument by the Starn Brothers. Must-sees include the Vatican Museums,Capitoline Museums, and Palazzo Massimo. Contemporary art and architecture aficionados will want to walk through Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI (21st-century art), and the neoclassical National Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery.  And that’s just the beginning.

Related: 67 & Dumped: on Her Own in Rome

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One of the countless lovely sights you’ll see in Rome: the staircase in the Vatican Museums (Photo: Boccalupo Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images)

Popular Way to Get Around Town: Foot, taxi, and even public transportation are the most efficient, while the brave will opt for bikes and scooters.

Sleep Tight: With last year’s opening of the J.K. Place and Gran Meliá,  Rome’s hotels have upped their game. The Hassler unleashed an amazing penthouse suite that rightfully boasts the best view of the city, while the always-desirable Hotel de Russie remains tops for its bonus concierge services and flawless style. I love the more intimate luxe of the Art Deco Palazzo Manfredi, plus its rooftop view of the Colosseum can’t be beat. My wallet adores the charming Locanda San Pancrazio.

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The Palazzo Manfredi isn’t bad to look at, but you can see an even more famous site from its roof ( Photo: Dan Shaw/Flickr)

Fashion Statement: Roman style is all about the three S’s — sunglasses, sparkles, and shoes, for men and women alike. Whatever the walk of life, Romans never leave home without good hair, pressed clothing, bright colors, and an outgoing personality.

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(Photo: 4FR/Vetta/Getty Images)

Fabulous Food: Roman food is best known as cucina povera, a basic “poor” cuisine made from cooking staples and leftovers, giving us unforgettable caciopepeamatriciana, and carbonara pastas that can be found in every trattoria and osteria. Over the years, the city has undergone a food revolution — slow food and street food make table appearances, while the city makes room for a galaxy of Michelin stars, including the three-star La Pergola, two two-stars, and 12 one-stars. My favorites are street-food pick-me-up Trapizzino, fritti from Cesare al Casaletto, and Pipero al Rex for a fabulous carbonara with a Michelin star.

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A street food pick-me-up from Trapizzino (Coso/Flickr)

Related: Avoid the Tourist Traps and Dine at These Mouth-Watering Destinations in Rome

Great Escapes: If you really think you need to leave Rome, hill towns like Tivoli and Frascati; lakes like Martignano and Bracciano; and beaches like Fregene, Maccarese, and Ostia are just a 30-to-45-minute escape.  Most are reachable by local train or bus, but some require a car.

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The hill town of Tivoli, about 20 miles from Rome (Thinkstock)

The Aperitivo Trail:  Florence doesn’t have a monopoly on the aperitivo scene. In Rome, it’s an integral part of Roman daily life. Hotel de Russie’s garden bar is the prettiest location for afternoon aperitivi. If the weather is warm, you’ll want to head to a rooftop, and the best views and great drinks are from the hotel terraces of Dom and the American Bar at the Hotel Forum. For serious drinks, step into the tiny speakeasy Jerry Thomas Project, dressed-up dive bar Barnum (with Rome’s best bartender), and D.O.M.’s ground-floor bar, a sexy and intimate backdrop with amazing and expensive cocktails.

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Enjoy the view at Hotel Forum (Photo: Space Hotels/Flickr)

The Celluloid City: Florence has done okay but it does not match Rome’s status as one of the great film settings. Fellini showed off its never-a-dull moment nature in “La Dolce Vita” (1960), and Audrey Hepburn embodied its beauty in “Roman Holiday” (William Wyler, 1953). From comedic slice of life to picturesque period pieces, and ancient history to sci-fi and mystery, every generation and genre has filmed in the city: “Ben-Hur” (William Wyler, 1959), “Spartacus” (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), “The Conformist” (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), “Mahogany” (Berry Gordy, 1975), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (Anthony Minghella, 1999), “Gladiator” (Ridley Scott, 2000), “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” (Walt Disney Pictures, 2003), “Ocean’s Twelve” (Steven Soderbergh, 2004), “Romanzo Criminale” (Michele Placido, 2005), “Mission: Impossible III” (J.J. Abrams, 2006), “Angels & Demons” (Ron Howard, 2009), “Eat Pray Love” (Ryan Murphy, 2010), “To Rome With Love” (Woody Allen, 2012).

Rome-based Erica Firpo likes to cross lines between art and culture, writing about art, lifestyle, fashion, and food for a variety of magazines, books, and online publications. She is a contributing editor to Fathom and is a regular contributor to Forbes Travel, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel, Discovery Magazine, and ANSA.