Let's get empty . . . me + you and #emptylagallerianazionale

I was raised to be a museum geek.  When I was child, my mom would take us to the Philadelphia Museum of Art almost every Saturday afternoon and said it was our playground-  Sol Le Witt's On A Blue Ceiling was our sky, Cy Twombly's Fifty Days at Iliam our playfround, and Peter Paul Ruben's Prometheus Bound our babysitter.  She'd let me cut school for a morning at the Barnes (original location), and my parents would rev us up with weekends in Washington DC, (my sisters and me fighting over what order to visit all of the Smithsonians) and New York (name a museum, we were there).  If anything, we wanted to live in museums like Claudia Kincaid, so my latest obsession makes sense:

Mornings in a museum all to myself.   Or better yet, organized visits to La Galleria Nazionale with you during hours that are normally closed to the public.   You read correctly:  closed galleria, all yours, but you have to let us know--  aka the next evolution of all these Emptys in Rome and Milan Darius and I have been hosting.  All you have to do is send a message via Instagram direct message to @LaGalleriaNazionale.


12 December 2016


Wanna see what La Galleria Nazionale looks like empty?


For past  Empty projects I have hosted...

Why You Should Visit Milan This Summer

This article appeared in Forbes Travel in June 2015.
Why You Should Visit Milan This Summer - Forbes Travel Guide

I've always championed a visit to Milan, and now more than ever.  Over the past few years, the city has made a concerted effort to evolve-- from fashion and finance to all that plus food, tech and of course art.  If Milan has been in the back of your head, put it to the forefront and consider taking a few days off to run around its incredible art collections and gorgeous shopping streets, meanwhile planning your next fabulous meal.  And yeah, I picked up some great places to stay as well.  Let's just say, I love getting to know Milan. An while you're at it, please take a look at my picks from this article which originally appeared in Forbes Travel, June 10, 2015.

Palazzo Parigi Hotel Photo Courtesy of The Leading Hotels of the World Ltd

With everyone’s attention on the Milan Expo 2015, the city itself has been gearing up its museums, exhibition spaces, restaurants and hotels for the rush of visitors about to give Milan the attention it well deserves. If Milan is in your summer plans, the Expo is undoubtedly a big part of the itinerary. That said, here is a list of places to go, things to eat and ways to relax when you do take that eventual break from all the Expo excitement.

Why You Should Visit Milan This Summer - Forbes Travel Guide

Bar Luce, Photo Courtesy of Attilio Maranzano

What to do Fondazione Prada opened its Rem Koolhaas-designed doors in an overhauled distillery on May 9. The cutting-edge art space (the “Serial Classic” bronze and marble sculpture collection runs through August 24) includes a kid’s area and Bar Luce, which was designed by Academy Award-nominated director Wes Anderson.

For a fashion break, pop over to the Armani Silos, the new fashion museum designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in a former Nestlé factory. The Silos’ debut, which coincided with the May 1 opening of the Expo, centers around Milan-born fashion icon Giorgio Armani.

Reliable attractions include Museo del Novecento and its incredible collection of Italian art from the late 1880s to the end of the 20th century (this includes The Fourth Estate, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s epic turn-of-the-century painting) and Villa Necchi Campiglio, the beautiful, 1930s home-turned-museum that was the stage for Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 Tilda Swinton-starred film I Am Love. For more Milan exhibitions and events, visit city-sponsored site ExpoInCittà.

Why You Should Visit Milan This Summer - Forbes Travel Guide

Rebelot, Photo Courtesy of Bruno Pulici

Where to eat and drink The Navigli neighborhood’s vintage Milanese osteria Al Pont de Ferr adds a 21st-century flair to traditional dishes. Rebelot, Al Pont de Ferr’s little sister, is a tapas bistro helmed by Brazilian chef Mauricio Zillo with an excellent cocktail bar. The fashionable set loves contemporary bistro Pisacco. Associate cocktail bar Dry has some of the best drinks (like the Superstition with Fernet-Branca, Mount Gay Eclipse Silver, Velvet Falernum, lemon juice and rhubarb and licorice bitters) in the city and, unbeknownst to many, quite the tasty pizza. For a more low-key dining scene, Lievito Madre al Duomo is a quaint Napoli import at the very center of Milan where pizzamaker Gino Sorbillo serves only seven kinds of pies. If you’ve had your fill of pepperoni, try Tokuyoshi, the February-opened, Italian-Japanese restaurant from Yoji Tokuyoshi, Massimo Bottura’s former sous chef at Modena’s beloved Francescana.

Where to stay Following a four-year restoration, the winter 2015-opened Excelsior Hotel Gallia is an incredible example of Art Deco enchantment in the 21st century, and perhaps the smartest place to stay in Milan. Studio Marco Piva brings light into the 1930s hotel through color (browns and other earth tones), wellness (Milan’s largest hotel spa) and technology (the gym has a virtual golf simulator). The rooftop restaurant and bar have a futuristic vibe, too, thanks to gorgeous glass chandeliers and curvaceous furniture. The ground-level library is perfect for an in-transit meeting or a smoke in the Poltrona Frau-orchestrated cigar bar. The location is perfect for Expo visitors as it is immediately adjacent to the city’s Central Station. The Milan hotel also gives you access to a courtesy car for transport to the historic center.

The 10-level boutique property Palazzo Parigi Hotel is Neoclassical luxe with a French twist. Cosmopolitan and stylish, the Palazzo Parigi screams “catwalk,” which makes sense seeing as how the address is just around the corner from Milan’s trendy quadrilatero della moda section. Designed by architect and owner Paola Giambelli, the rooms toe between modernist Milano and fanciful French. The ground-level lounge bar Caffé Parigi seems inspired by a Rothschild library. Gastronomic Restaurant feels like a runway of sorts, too, with its dramatic glass “tunnel” for waiters. In the warmer months, head to the century-old garden for evening cocktails.

Isla Holbox, Paradise Found

This article first appeared in Huffington Post.

Island. Oasis. Hallucination. Somewhere on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, I have found my perfect recharge of sun and sand, and ceviche and margaritas. Isla Holbox, whose name translates to Black Hole, is a blue oasis. Quite possibly only 100 km from Cancun (in our case, it was 300 km as we decided to take the wrong road and then backtrack a few times), Holbox is a tiny island of whale watching, horseback riding, kayaking, nature walks, bungalows and quiet time.

We were invited to Holbox for a long weekend to celebrate a friend’s wedding with the only description of the unfamiliar island as “not Cancun,” a place I deliberately ignore for its warranted Spring Breakers reputation. From the minute we drove into Chiquila, the last stop before Holbox, I knew this was my kind of place. Chiquila docks the ferries that transport to the island. And for me, ferries are the best way to gauge dimension and personality of a place — whether large like the Grimaldi cruisers that run between Rome and Palermo or Venice’s smallish vaporettos. In this case, small and relaxed. Within 30 minutes, we arrived on Holbox and taxied across the island on a golf cart, my second preferred method of travel.


Holbox is a conversation of colors — from the vibrantly painted buildings in the small town to the beautiful blue waters — there is color everywhere. What the small island of seven miles long and one mile wide does not have are cars, so its 1,600+ inhabitants and guests enjoy their days on foot, bicycle or golf cart. It is a 21st century Gilligan’s island where relaxation is a day’s event. Yes, there is whale watching, and other water sports, but to be honest, we didn’t really do much sight seeing Holbox beyond a lazy horse trail and an afternoon wedding. And really nothing should be a priority when walking Holbox’s coastline will suffice.

Though my stay was just a dip in the water, the cerulean blue immediately hooked me- slightly chilly, lovingly calm and deliciously salty. Had the water and the weather tipped the mercury upward a few degrees, I would have happily re-enacted Captain Jack Sparrow’s hallucination sequence from At World’s End.

How to Get There: Fly into Cancun, and drive west on Merida Libre highway, looking for indications to Chiquila, the port city where you will catch a 35-minute ferry to Isla Holbox. Ferry runs once an hour, depending on the season and costs 80 pesos. There are also short, private flights from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, et al.

Where to Stay: Isla Holbox has a selection of beachfront hotels and villas, as well as city apartments, none of which have more than two or three levels. We stayed in a beach bungalow at eco-chic Villas Flamingos, who eco-intentions include a very clever ecological bathroom system where shower water is recycled into the villas’ small garden, along with compost-style WCs.

Zio Ziegler, from English to Italian and back

In the hands of @zioziegler. A serendipitous afternoon- I met up with the incredibly prolific Zio as he gets ready for his show in #Milan. I still can't believe how much he reads- suggest a book, he's looking for more

A photo posted by Erica Firpo (@ericafirpo) on Apr 4, 2014 at 2:35pm PDT

About a month ago, Wired Italia published an interview I wrote with Zio Ziegler, 20-something artist and wonder boy.  I conducted the interview in English, wrote it up and then had the not-so-pleasant pleasure of translating it into Italian. It threw my mind, wrapped me around a tree and made me question how many personalities I really have.  Writing in Italian is one thing, re-writing your voice in Italian is a whole other ball game.

For those who didn't really read the interview in Italian, here's my original English language piece.

The Raw Economics of Art

San Francisco, Milan, Tokyo, New York, London, San Francisco, Parma.   Somewhere along this zig-zagging voyage, I meet up with artist Zio (yes, that is his birth name) Ziegler, Californian, class of 1988.  Ziegler is the latest evolution of those Bay Area baby geniuses who mixes canvases and concrete walls with art galleries, venture capitals and start-ups.

He’s been dubbed a prodigy for his propensity to produce.  His work is totemic and visceral, figurative and abstract, painterly and street, all rolled into large scale murals and sought-after canvas paintings.  When he’s not painting, he’s reading and writing, or drawing, whether in his head, on a napkin or on the bike trail, leading him to a broad range of collaborations, natural for a kid born and raised in the Bay Area.

I am get exhausted just looking at his Twitter and Instagram feeds. You can imagine how it feels to talk to him. When I caught up with Zio in Milan, he was finishing up a series of projects including a one-man show at Antonio Colombo Gallery, a wall mural at the Repubblica metro stop and the monumental front entrance of the Cinelli bike manufacturing company outside of Milan.  To paraphrase Ziegler’s own words about artists Julian Schnabel,  “the kid can’t be pinned down”.

On Painting

Ziegler’s been painting since he was old enough to hold a pencil, encouraged by parents who wanted him to ‘be the best’ at whatever he wanted. Though his high school and university (Brown/RISD) experience may not have been as encouraging, Ziegler has foraged a career based on instinct and acumen.

ZZ: I never understood while I was painting, for many years. I'd kind of, try to rationalize how those painting works, but it was more visceral than anything else. . . All of a sudden, the idea comes after the painting. Sometimes I'll have a dream about a painting but otherwise, it starts with gestures and lines and then all of a sudden it has to work, it's like a visual anomaly that I'm trying to solve.  Paintings are like Rorschach tests in a way.  It's sort the filtration process of the mind. There's no boundary between the mind and the canvas.

Painting is all about new materials, it has to be new and fresh and conceptual. I am so, not against conceptual work, but I'm against dull painting. I want life. I want beauty. I want something that pays homage to the past and builds on top and has a dialogue and honesty. On California and Shifting Frontiers

Digital gold fever is still raging in California, leading many to feel that the West is the place for creative, in particular artists who no longer need abide by gallery and critic limitations.

ZZ:   I had this sort of theory that the West Coast is ever evolving because it's at this sort of geographic point where people said, the frontier is always evolving, it's always being pushed and I think right now I think there's this big paradigm shift taking place in art where it has to be both. The printing press was sort of reinvented with the phone.

[San Francisco/West Coast] is a world where digital realities and life blend, where one can image a reality and turn thought into substance. The west has always embodied possibility, opportunity, the ability to discover or create anything in order to survive and adapt. It’s a place that inspires man to constantly break past the pre existing van guard. Maybe because of its geographic location, or its distance from European influence, or it's combination of urban and natural so harmoniously blended, but it seems to be a place that preserves the searching spirit.

On Collaboration

Ziegler was born with enough of the so-called wild west impetus in him to reach out to companies leading to brand collaborations with Pottery Barn, Stance Socks, Vans, Cinelli Bicycles, and Urban Outfitters.

ZZ:  It’s the raw economics of art. With the accessibility now of art via the phone, I think it's very important for an artist to accommodate this sort of adjustment in the economic system. I don't think it's selling out to work with Vans or these companies because selling out doesn't exist anymore. Selling out is an internal sort of dialogue. It's not an external one. It's the artist's role to engage in the same way Rafael did with birthday parties and cakes and whatever. It's the artist's role to answer to humanity rather than art history, I think, right now.

On Technology

Like everyone else, Ziegler embraces technology while at the same time wanting to kick out of the door.

ZZ: There seems to be such a growing dependence on technology, and I think the only thing that will bring independence back to our lives free of the grid will be analog experiences. The hyper awareness of the grid means that it seems as though everyone else is always doing something more interesting than you, the world is moving so fast that its hard to get a grasp on a value system or a perspective of what you want and how you want to live, The zeitgeist now seems curated through what you choose to expose yourself to on Social Media- we are all choosing our poisons or choosing which content will feel as though we are not enough.

If I wake up, and look at the internet, my day becomes relative. It exists next to the curated lives of others, and there is this sort of dependence on living better, or on being smarter and achieving more in order to keep up with the pace of the world. It's breeding a mobile bovarism. It's the double edged sword of the new printing press.

The Future

ZZ: I'm interested in the world of the artist now as the most relevant in the world. Like what does that take? I think it takes a lot of vertical integration. It's like your paintings are the inspiration for everything else. I want to write TV shows and produce them about authenticity. I want to write books and develop hotels with the art . . I like this idea to have the artist taking on all these different roles now, you know?

I love painting. I love the work, I love the process, but I need to keep myself, I'm never satisfied with the work that I'm making. I think in order to be the greatest, you have to know, you can want it, but you're never going to touch it. You're never going to be the greatest, there's no end point. The path is the goal. You constantly touch it and it leaves. Some of these paintings have touched, it's the best painting I've made and then the next day I need a greater one. I think it's the same thing with that. It's like a Sisyphusian sort of process.  With me, that's just what keeps the fire under my ass.

Zio Ziegler, The Desent, 2014, mixed media on canvas, 152,4x213,4 cm
Zio Ziegler, The Desent, 2014, mixed media on canvas, 152,4x213,4 cm

Hot Pockets: Conversation with Massimo Bottura, Superstar Intellectual Italian Chef

Hot Pocketsis a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications. This article was originally written for Fathomand published on Friday 21st November 2014.  

Our continuing adventures during Chefs Travel week takes us to Italy for a converation between contributing editor Erica Firpo and Massimo Bottura, the chef whose flagship, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and sits at #3 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list — about his new cookbook, about food and art, about the importance of Playboy to the young boy's mind.

MODENA, Italy – Every time I think about the time I had lunch at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, I smile. Who else would create a transcendental dish dedicated to parmesan and call it The Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano? And who would sit you in a restaurant decorated with his personal art collection which includes pieces by Vezzoli and Cattelan?

To make a long story short, a few years ago I treated myself to Bottura's tasting menu at his restaurant in Emilia-Romana. The next thing I knew, I was driving around Modena with Bottura to meet his wife Lara Gilmore and to say hello to pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, David Salle, the Chapman brothers, and Marcel Dzama, among others. I told them I loved every piece and therefore I loved them. They told me they were writing a book.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is his new conceptual cookbook, a beautiful tome that looks gorgeous on the coffee table. It's filled with Bottura's stories — transporting tales through head, heart, and stomach. As a reader, you take the journey with him. Bottura is a creator: His dishes are edible, personal stories that traverse travel, tradition, perspective, and, to some, patience. They are as much about art and word play as they are about culinary experimentation. We recently had a chat about all of the above.

Osteria Francescana

A kitchen scene, as appears in Bottura's cookbook. Photo by Stefano Grazieri.

What was the first piece of art you purchased?

One of the first contemporary works we bought was Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. We saw the taxidermy pigeons at the Venice Biennale in 1997. By December, once the exhibition was dismounted, ten were in our apartment in Modena. We didn't dare put them in the restaurant at the time, but today some of the pigeons are hanging from the rafters of Osteria Francescana. We installed them after a renovation in 2012. The rest of them sit quietly on a bookshelf in our living room, observing us from above.

What was the last? What's next? What else do you collect?

I just bought, after years of desiring and hunting, two Joseph Beuys pieces. The first is his classic felt suit — one of the most important works in his career — and a material that became a signature for him, the way Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar are for me. The second is a La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a print that shows Beuys walking with his determined gait, iconic hat, and safari vest, a comment on the many social sculptures initiated in Italy in the 1980s.

The first film we ever made for OF was an attempt to describe our creative process through the close examination of two different recipes. We called it We Are the Revolution after Beuys' conceptual premise. We still don't know if these new works will be hung at home or at the restaurant. We always say, "We don't find the art. It finds us." And in that same breath we add, "The art knows where it needs to go."

How would you define your creative process?

My inspiration comes from living in the present and from not getting too caught up in the day-to-day. I daydream a lot. I probably would have been put into the category of ADD when I was a kid. Thank goodness no one noticed or corrected this trait. I let my mind wander as often as I can and I travel through my memories, my experiences allowing my eagerness to taste life guide me. Whenever I find myself in a new place, I eat locally and seek out simple authentic food. That is how I understand a place, through my palate. When I was in China, I learned the technique of making dumplings. In Sri Lanka, curry, and in Thailand how to balance spices. All these experiences are added to my cultural baggage. They become part of me and part of my kitchen. They tell stories about my travels and experiences. I am very interested in personal cooking; not in national or regional cooking. I want to feel that the chef is there, somewhere, in that recipe, speaking to me, asking me to change my point of view.

I always suggest that young chefs read, travel, and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 28-year career.

So, to answer your question, my creative process begins with the world around me, who I am, and where I come from, but everything I have read, listened to, watched, cried over, tasted, and dreamt. I often say, "learn everything, then forget everything." It is so important to fill one's suitcase with culture, books, music, literature, and art, travels, and then kitchen experience. Cooking is not manual labor but a thinking man's job. I mean, creativity is creativity. It's not throwing a piece of meat into a skillet. That is cooking. What we are trying to do requires jumping into that pan with your soul. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one too often left behind, is the mind. If you really think about it, the only zero kilometer cooking is that which is taking place in our minds. I can dream anything or traverse continents without leaving the kitchen.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

Your dishes are conceptual and playful in nature and in name. They're Duchampian — inspired by art and experience. Would you elaborate on that?

I am actually reading a fantastic biography of Duchamp and I love the Calvin Thomas book Afternoons with Duchamp. He had his finger on the pulse long before many others. The language and the titles of my recipes are intrinsic to the ideas and stories behind them. There is Duchamp in there, but also Boetti. Words play such a big part of our world today, and maybe have since the bible, since Gutenberg's printing press. Many artists have used words as visual signifiers for other things — culture, consumerism, and identity. If you call a poached turbot with faux grilled marks "Is this a grilled turbot?" you not only create a curiosity among the diners but you begin to address other issues: How should turbot be cooked? Why is it always grilled on the Adriatic Riviera? Isn't it time we question that?

Food is nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind. Stimulate the appetite, but feed the hungry soul. Language has played a role in my kitchen since the first savory potato and onion Cappuccino, then Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, and so on. A little bit of irony goes a long way, especially if you think about how serious and set in stone the Italian kitchen can be, which is an oxymoron in itself because the Italian kitchen is based on improvisation, yet everyone wants to write down the absolute truth. Well, it just doesn't exist. Bollito, not boiled. There you go.

What's your favorite name of one of your dishes? And your favorite name for a piece of art?

I love the way Alghiero Boetti's mind works. "Immagine e somiglianza" is the title for a series of works by the artist, but the expression also refers to most of Western art. As for my recipes, it's hard to pick just one. They have become companions over the years. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart talks about imperfection and Millefoglie di foglie addresses the importance of finding poetry in the everyday. I love the recipes because I love the ideas behind them as well as the flavors, not just the word play.

You mention Notari "Come to Italy with Me" and "tearing up the pages of the Silver Spoon." You're an Emilian chef who both throttles Italian cooking traditions for not encouraging creativity and grabs hold of other regions to shake them up. What does tradition mean to you?

Tradition is everything. It is our geography — every bell tower and church dotting the countryside. Tradition is an accumulation of human gestures. And when it comes to traditional food, then one is also addressing agriculture, artisans, territory, and identity. I do not deny traditions but work through them, never assuming they are right but always trying to respect their origins. My kitchen is probably (and ironically) the most traditional in Italy today, even if it doesn't look that way. The only way to safeguard our traditions is to let them breathe and grow and move out of the comfort zone. When they become comfort food, then there is the inevitable decline. The critical (and constructive) mind is distracted by sentiments and nostalgia, and consequently the ragu looses something magical in the process. It just becomes another routine instead of a solution to a question, an active gesture, an attempt to revive not just repeat.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

You've made the Emilia Burger for Shake Shack. What are you saying about Italian food and your cuisine to Americans?

If you make an Emilia burger at home, then you will know what I am saying about American food. Good idea, but poor followthrough. What is the great weakness of any hamburger? The patty is always dry. That is why we added ground cotechino and Parmigiano-Reggiano: flavor, gelatin, and texture. Try it and see what happens to your hamburger. By adding a dollop of salsa verde instead of insipid lettuce or a pickle, we've added acidity and chlorophyll in concentration. The touch of balsamic mayonnaise rounds out the flavors and lends depth to the palate. I love America. And I love street food. Eating a hamburger in a park is one of the great joys of being in a city like New York, but if you add a little Italian zing, then wow! Wise contamination is a good thing.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is wonderful — a hybrid coffee table/family history/cookbook that focuses on three-dimensionalization of an idea. It's not just a cookbook or a culinary history. Where do you want to see this book?

I'd love to see the book leave the shelves and migrate to elementary schools and libraries and museums, or find a secret community under the beds of a teenage boys, like the once-coveted issues of Playboy we all collected as kids.

Many of your dishes, like Pollution, have a message. What is your overall message?

I honestly see each recipe in the context of what I learned from it or what we as a restaurant learned from making it. So recipes are little life lessons for chefs and for restaurants. I am still making them up, so I probably won't know the final message until it is too late. The career of a chef is like a puzzle. Over time the pieces fall into place and you begin to see a picture, but often it is not what you thought it would be. I began wanting desperately to be avant-garde, to break the rules and live dangerously. The more I grow and learn, the more our kitchen whispers rather than shouts. I like this reversal because I'd rather engage an audience in an idea, a flavor, a string of thoughts than shock them. Our kitchen leads you inward like a labyrinth to a place called flavor — which at times can be familiar and at times alarming. We hope unforgettable and enduring. That is what we aim for. But the real message of the book is directed at the next generation: Be like a tree. Grow slowly.

Instagram snapshots: Italy

Rome is my city and I always find there is something to waiting for me, if I just have a little patience.  Priests gesticulating at Caffe Sant'Eustachio, a pretty bell tower in Palazzo Taverna, the Corsa dei Santi passing my house and heading to St. Peter's square.   Atmosphere is always important-- late evening with the Lacoon is the best time for the Vatican museums, a medieval courtyard with contemporary art, and an ersatz fashion with dresses by Antonio Riva.  A big dish of tajarin (taglierini) al tartufo from the lovely ladies of Ca' del Lupo,  hanging out in Barolo and stumbling across the Capella del Barolo, a beautiful chapel painted in 1997 by Sol LeWitt (exterior) and David Tremlett (interior), for the Ceretto family.

Yahoo Travel: Five Charming Italian Towns You've Probably Never Heard Of

This originally appeared on Yahoo Travelon Monday, October 27, 2014.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Ferrovie dello Stato (Italy’s railway system), but when I’m looking for a little 21st-century time travel, I drive around Italy’s messy regional roads because there are fairy-tale towns waiting to be discovered on top of and behind every hill. The Italian countryside is overrun with millennia of history, and the country’s 20 regions are all decisively different, which is why making a wrong turn always sends you in the right direction.

Here are five of my favorite places that I’ve discovered over the years.

Let’s start from the top…


5 Charming Italian Towns You've Never Heard Of

The town of Marostica (Photo: Thinkstock)

When you wind your way into the valleys of the Veneto region, you are bound to come across crenelated castles and medieval villages perfect for a Shakespearean play setting. Just a half hour northeast of Vicenza is Marostica, one of those picturesque towns still rocking its 15th-century heyday, with a fortress gate, looming castle, surrounding wall, and piazza-sized chessboard.

human chess in marostica italy

The biannual human chess match in Marostica (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)

Yes, a chessboard. Marostica is all about chess. Every even-numbered year, the city hosts a living chess tournament in its main piazza, where players — pawns, bishops, kings, and queens — dress in early Renaissance costume to re-enact an epic poem based on Marostica’s 15th-century legend of two dueling families.

Related: Hitchhiking in Italy: The Worst Travel Decision I’ve Ever Made (Shocker, I Know!)

view of marostica italy

A view of Marostica (Photo: Nicola/Flickr)

And every May, the town hosts a two-week-long cherry festival to celebrate the harvest — Marostica’s cherries are considered the best in Italy. If getting out of town is necessary, Marostica’s location is ideal for a whirl around the Veneto in search of Palladian villas in the areas surrounding Marostica, Vicenza, and Bassano del Grappa.

Where to stay: Albergo Due Mori


gubbio  secret italy

The rooftops of Gubbio (Photo: Benito Roveran/Flickr)

If Veneto is about castles, Umbria is about color. Its vivid natural palette has inspired almost every color pigment made; local artist Piero della Francesca immortalized its countryside. Forget about Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, and Orvieto, and head northeast from Perugia to Gubbio, a jewel-box medieval town.

Related: ‘Mangia!’ We Ate and Drank Our Way Through Northern Italy

flowers in gubbio  secret italy

A flower-bedecked walkway in Gubbio (Photo: Thinkstock)

High on the hill, Gubbio gives off an austere vibe with its monumental medieval architecture, such as the looming Palazzo dei Consoli and the Duomo. Don’t be daunted — Gubbio is a calm and almost meditative city, with wide-open piazzas, ancient Roman sites, and amazing century-old festivals. Gubbio has had a more than 500-year rivalry with Sansepolcro, hometown of della Francesca. Every year, top archers from both towns meet for the Palio della Balestra (alternately in each town), where archrivals vie for best bow. Everyone, and I mean everyone, from Sansepolcro and Gubbio is dressed in early Renaissance garb that some say is based on della Francesca figures.

On May 15, Gubbio strikes a pose as it celebrates patron saint Ubaldo in the Corsa dei Ceri, a race where three huge wooden candle-shaped columns are raced through the town in an all-day affair.

corsa dei ceri celebration in gubbio

The Corsa dei Ceri celebration (Photo: Martin Thomas/Flickr)

And if Gubbio is too sleepy for you, it’s easy to head out on the way of St. Francis, visiting Spoleto and Assisi, among other towns, or meander on the trail of Piero della Francesca paintings, which are found in churches and museums from Arezzo to Sansepolcro.

Where to stay: Hotel Bosone

Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio secret italy

Hilltop Civita di Bagnoregio (Photo: Thinkstock)

If you find yourself lost on the way to Orvieto, look for Civita di Bagnoregio, which is in the northern edge of Lazio region. Thanks to its vertiginous isolation, Civita di Bagnoregio is a well-preserved medieval enclave of confusing alleys, surprise piazzas, and ivy-covered arches, and it’s practically all yours if you can make it up the steep, acrophobia-inspiring footbridge. The pedestrian-only town has as few as 12 inhabitants during the winter months.

Related: A Boozy Tour of Orvieto, in Italy’s Umbrian Countryside

Civita di Bagnoregio doorway secret italy

A doorway in Civita di Bagnoregio (Photo: ho visto nina volare/Flickr)

Visit on a foggy morning, and you’ll see a town that looks like a small island floating in the clouds. Once the sun shines, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a tiny stone town that sits precariously on a massive rock.

Civita di Bagnoregio feels figuratively and literally on edge, so it comes as no surprise that the World Monuments Fund placed Civita di Bagnoregio on its 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2006. Bagnoregio can be either a quick pit stop — within an hour you can scale the bridge, visit the town, and head back down — or, as I prefer, an overnight affair. Where else than an impenetrable town is better for a tryst?

Where to stay: Corte della Maesta


ortigia sicily secret italy

The waterfront in Ortigia (Photo: UminDaGuma/Flickr)

Lately, Sicily has gotten a lot of love — and with good reason. It has the best of Italy: food, culture, archaeological sites, beaches. And Ortigia is its trophy. The tiny island off of Siracusa in Sicily’s southeastern corner is a Baroque sandcastle mixed with Greek mythology. Take a 10-minute walk around and you’ll see ancient Greek temples, a historic fish market, a fortress, medieval neighborhoods, and a piazza with even more ancient temples, outdoor cafés, and a Caravaggio painting.

Related: Don’t Tell Anyone: The Last Secret Island in All of Italy

Ortigia’s location is key: It’s immediately adjacent to Siracusa, a city whose archaeological treasures include a gorgeous Greek amphitheater. And it’s perfectly situated for day trips to Noto and Modica, two beautiful Baroque towns also noted for their sweets. Modica, in particular, is the center for Italy’s chocolate production.

Where to stay: Sciuretta

Ceglie Messapica

Ceglie Messapica secret italy

The streets of Ceglie Messapica (Photo: Thinkstock)

The Puglia region, in the heel of the boot, is a beautiful landscape of ancient farmhouses, coastlines, and castles. In Salento, the southern territory, sleepy Ceglie Messapica has reigned as “the center of Pugliese cuisine” for more than 90 years.

Related: The Most Adorable Italian Inns — That Won’t Break the Bank

The 15th-century town, a cramped diamond in the rough with its castle and crooked cobblestone roads, is bursting with flavor and culinary tradition. The restaurant Cibus is the place to test out seasonal, time-tested recipes, and it has perhaps the stinkiest and most well-sourced cheese collection anywhere. Surrounding Ceglie is a countryside peppered with trulli, those charming conical stone huts that look similar to the Seven Dwarfs’ homes. Many of them have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts that are trulli scrumptious (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Where to stay: Trullo dei Messapi

Ceglie Messapica hotel secret italy

The exterior of the hotel Trullo dei Messapi (Photo: Trullo dei Messapi)

What does the Fox say? Cala di Volpe



That is exactly the vibe I get when walk into the lair of Cala di Volpe, Prince Aga Khan's playground for the rich and famous.  The entrance alone sets the stage for my three days- sexy,  cozy and casual.  For Forbes, I called it a terracotta sandcastle with curves, and I meant it.  There is something dreamlike and nostalgic about Cala.  Maybe because it reminds me of St. Peter's weekend sunbathing with my ex-boyfriend Andrea and I while chatting up Nesta and Inzaghi the Younger.   Or maybe because its warm tones and beautiful lounges remind me of those 1980s Bain de Soleil commercials.  Or maybe because it is just that - dreamy.

My thoughts?

I love its style, color and its vibe.  The Cala is rustic yet sophisticated.  It reminds me of my imaginary home,  you know the one that is effortless chic, seemingly casual and meditatively colorful.  In brief,  the rooms are comfort caves with a view.  The rooms are decorated with Sardinian imagery, vibrant colors dominated by emerald green.  And almost every room has a terrace.  I could've spent most of my days on my terrace , or  in that cozy bed, if that gorgeous green water wasn't so deliciously inviting.

The Cala's location is fantastic-- it's an easy get-away and get-to.   Just 30 minutes by car from Olbia's airport to the hotel and just far away enough from Port Cervo that you can pretend you are on your own island.   And the little is oasis is set up for food and fun so you really don't ever have to leave.  The Professor's friend Christian runs all the water sports, and he's cute.  The hotel restaurants (the grill!) are obviously amazing but more importantly, throughout the summer they bring in Michelin-starred chefs for Eating under the Stars, and the hotel sponsors both Porto Cervo Wine Festival (May) and Food Festival (September).   If I had to be picky, I would say that only the  bathrooms need a pick-me-up but it did have a five-star hair dryer.  Here's my idea of a weekend in Porto Cervo.

JULY and AUGUST 2015:  Natalie ImbrugliaEarth, Wind & Fire Juy  26 luglio.  Robbie Williams August 13.

Cala di Volpe. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda.


Grande Bellezza: Palazzo Sacchetti

The world revolves around Rome.

Is Rome a fairy tale? No. It's chaotic and surreal existence of contradiction, beauty and argument - a test of true grit with a pretty reward, if you know where to look. So it makes sense that the Eternal City’s unyielding beauty and unforgiving personality are constantly used as backdrop and setting for films.

Case in point: Academy Awarding winning film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), by Paolo Sorrentino, about an overgrown and overripe literary playboy, Jep, whose lives unfulfilled in 21st century Rome. The city plays silent protagonist to the has-been writer by juxtaposing the relentless beauty of Rome to the fathomless emptiness of Jep’s life. Scenes are shot all over the city and showcase every area and era—ancient and modern, panorama and palazzo.

In April, I had the opportunity to visit Palazzo Sacchetti, Great Beauty backdrop and just another one of Rome’s amazing Renaissance-era palazzi. Rome runs rampant with them, and they all come with a pedigree. Palazzo Sacchetti probably has the best. Location is key. Via Giulia is a quiet thoroughfare that connects the Campo de' Fiori area to the Vatican in a beautifully lined street of mid and late Renaissance palaces. The palace was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (of the da Sangallo architect dynasty) in 1542, right after the renovation and beautification of Via Giulia by Pope Julius II, and is home to grottoes, chapels, gardens, sculpture and paintings by legends like Pietro da Cortona. Since 1648, it has been the property of the Sacchetti family who, to this day, live on the piano nobile, while the remaining floors are rental apartments and offices.

The Sacchetti Family apartment is a glimpse into a forgotten aristocracy where majordomos follow you through out the rooms, tea is served on vintage Meissen and da Cortona frescoes grin at you. And from the moment I entered the piano nobile, I saw red-- a luxury rosso moves you throughout the apartment from the upholstered front door, the papal crest and chair in the main entrance, the details in frescoes in the Mappamondi and the accents in the dining room, salotto and other galleries. Visit organized by Italian Ways.

For more of my photos, please visit my Momentage article.




Soon to be on your wall: 50/50


Jessica Stewart has long been on the bandstand sharing her love for street art, whether behind the camera lens or in classrooms talking about the landscape of street art in Rome.  What started out as simply spectator appreciation and street side photography has evolved into a career working with artists such as Alice Pasquini to create engaging exhibitions and continuously promote street art, as well as ongoing documentation of Italy's (and everywhere else she goes) urban art work.

Over the past years, I've loved spying on Jessica's... well, spying, as she captures artwork and artists in flagrante delicto.  Her behind the scenes perspective makes it easy to understand that Jessica doesn't just love documenting the art and culture of street art, it is a calling.  And this month, the calling has brought her together with artist Rub Kandy for 50/50, a group show of approximately 30 international artists, cascading through panorama  of street art styles.

Why 50/50?  Rub Kandy isn't just that artist who adds a little color to the local landscape, he's the artist who colored controversy in 2011 when he installed an iron sign in Rome's Pigneto quarter with the writing "work will make you free".  Polemic erupted, and though Rub explained his motives as reflection on the state of employment, in particular in regard to the Italian crisis, he will shortly be going to Italian court for, what seems would be, to defend himself as an artist.  This week, Rub and Jessica are curators of a pretty amazing group of artists-- friends, colleagues, peers-- who have banded together across the street art community, with 50% of the sales proceeds going to Rub's legal fees.

Think of this way, on May 9 (and through May 15), you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in art, mix and mingle with spray can, paint and paper magicians, and even buy some pieces for your walls.


Opening May 9, 6.30pm VISIVA - La Città dell’Immagine via Assisi 117, Roma

From May 9 to 15,

Monday-Friday, 11 am to 7pm

Find out who's going to hang on your wall