TRAVEL

LA DOUBLE J: JJ Martin, Milan's Patron Saint of Patterns

Welcome to the wonderful world of La Double J. Photo: Erica Firpo

Welcome to the wonderful world of La Double J. Photo: Erica Firpo

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It’s not easy being a saint, and JJ Martin does it in style. As the creative force behind La Double J, a Milan-based clothing and homewares company, JJ has maxed out whimsical maxi dresses to fabulous formal wear and epic casual looks. La Double J dresses, skirts, blouses and outwear have sashayed through every party and decorated every It girl. Laura Ashley, it’s not.

"I love waiters that never change….”

JJ is enthusiastically particular and particularly enthusiastic. You can tell from her prints and from any conversation with her. She is neck-deep in Milan and can get down about anything- from vintage dresses and vintage waiters to the city’s renaissance which is happening right now. She considers herself a home body yet she’s up and on top of La Double J, its collaborations and her friends, a collective of creatives. Attentive, dynamic and incredibly well researched, JJ does the work which is why she was able to transform a vintage clothing e-shop into an international label of her own designs. And it helps that she’s in Italy, where historic design and textile companies are still (fingers crossed) producing.

Even though I am innately overwhelmed by prints, I fell in love with La Double J dresses for the peculiarity of some of the designs (my favorite is the Bouncy Dress with rainbow doves flying all over it). and for the quality of the fabrics, another fascination of JJ’s.. She sources fabrics like Crepe de Chine, crispy cotton (a thick, almost started cotton), silk and Jacquard from Italy’s heritage textile companies, and works with Mantero, a four-century old print archive and silk company whose revolutionized to the 21st century, for her prints. For her homewares, she collaborates with Murano glass makers and Italian ceramic artists. The result is that every La Double J piece is entirely made in Italy. And you can feel it.

JJ’S Milan includes the historic Marchese Pasticceria, Caffè Cucchi, the garden Bar at Bulgari Hotel, The Botanical Club (the first Italian micro distillery), and Lu Bar for those fabulous Milan aperitivi.

MORE FROM THIS EPISODE

Want to know how JJ went from fashion journalist to fashion house? Why La Double J is all about Italy? Where JJ hangs out in Milan? And finally where can you find your next La Double J dress? Pull up a chair, press play on the player above and catch the conversation with JJ Martin of La Double J.

CIAO BELLA is An ongoing conservation with those creative minds who are redefining Italy. New episodes every Monday. If you want to be part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast by visiting my Patreon page for behind-the-scenes, and for-your-eyes-only content. Keep in touch with ideas and comments for more Ciao Bella episodes.

Collision wine and art: Ornellaia's breaks the tension with a very special limited edition La Tensione

Ornellaia Vineyards, courtesy of Ornellaia.

End of August and we are thinking about wine…..

I love it when worlds collide - when art becomes wearable fashion, fashion becomes functional experience, habitation becomes installation and culinary becomes performance. It happens in any media, in any art and every day, and it can even happen on the table. One of the best collisions, or what I like to call and overlap, is art and wine. Products of intense creativity, hardworking and community, there is a lot of commonality in both industries. There are the makers, the artists and artisans who move material to create one-of-a-kind visual and palatable experiences. There are the fans - whether FOMO or long-term invested - who go to every opening, taste every bottle, peruse every Instagram. And then there are mecenati - the patrons and ollectors who drop dollars to make these creations immortal - whether liquid, canvas, video or experience. And I love them all, even more so when one of the main ingredients to the overlap is Italy.

Olga Fusari, Ornellaia’s enologist and Axel Heinz, estate director. Courtesy of Ornellaia.

Enter Ornellaia

One of the heavy hitters on the wine scene, Ornellaia is a DOC Bolghieri that came almost out of nowhere with its first bottles from 1985. Decades of articles, awards, success and drinking followed. Ornellaia became a dream, a bucket list item, and even a hashtag #winegoals. Sometime in 2008, Ornellaia - CEO Giovanni Geddes da Filicaia and president Fernando Frescobaldi - decided to put their love for contemporary art on the very bottles that they were producing, bringing in curator Bartolomeo Pietromarchi to help choose artists who would imbibe the terroir as well as the wines to create Vendemmia dell’Artista, a limited artist edition of bottles- 100 double magnums, 10 Imperials (6L) and a single Salamanazar (9L). But there’s a catch: the artist would be inspired by a single word.

Every year, estate director Axel Heinz walks through the vineyards and reflects on the year’s winemaking, paring down an incredible, year-long experience from bud-break to barrel into a single word which then becomes inspiration and (dare I write) theme for a contemporary artist to create limited edition bottle labels (and eventually larger scale artwork) for the selected vedemmia. Past editions include Charisma (William Kentridge), Essence (Ernesto Neto), Equilibrium (Zhang Huan) and Energy (Rebecca Horn). Select bottles are available for purchase, but 111 bottles are chosen specifically for auction (with proceeds donated to a non-profit arts organization). To me, this is the most low profile and natural interactive art experience you’ll find.

Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of Ornellaia.

La Tensione (2016) by Shirin Neshat.- the ten Imperials (6L). Courtesy of Ornellaia.

La Tensione (Tension) is eleventh word in a decade of experiences bottled into Ornellaia’s Vendemmia dell’Artista. For the 2016 vintage, the Super Tuscan asked super artist Shirin Neshat to create tension, a perfect pairing as Neshat has long been known for her evocative photography and video installations that play on tension and fragility. Her response was photo series of gesturing hands calligraphed with words from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (lines which refer to how wine elevates the human spirit) on the Double Magnums, Methuselahs (Imperials) and Salamanazar, while there are limited edition 1 liters calligraphed with Khayyam’s poem and signed by the artist.

“The entire Ornellaia team contributed throughout the year with extreme tension. The word can seem suggestive. It has so many meanings- attention, apprehension, that relate to the different phases of the process. Great wines can be of two kinds of equilibrium- harmony or an almost static balance,'“ says Heinz. And the wine is great. I should know, I tasted it in a pre-auction debut.

La Tension’s 111 bottles (100 double magnums, 10 Methuselahs (6L) and a single Salamanazar (9L)) are being auctioned at Sotheby’s online with all proceeds donated Minds Eye project ( Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation) which helps blind and visually impaired people to experience art with all their senses.

Neshat signs every bottle. Photo by Erica Firpo.

In some cases…. you’ll find a Vendemmia dell’Artista bottle. Photo by Erica Firpo.

In some cases…. you’ll find a Vendemmia dell’Artista bottle. Photo by Erica Firpo.

The one and only Salmanazar. The 2015 edition sold for £45,000. Let’s hope 2016 is record breaking. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Rome's Cocktail King Patrick Pistolesi Serves up the Eternal City

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team.  Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

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Patrick Pistolesi knows Rome and its drinking scene. The renowned Irish-Italian barman grew up in the Eternal City and, for more than 20 years, he served up cocktails at the capital’s most iconic night spots. But summers spent in Dublin also gave the future tippler a taste of more casual pub culture from his Irish cousins. 

From no-name, no-frills boltholes to internationally recognized lounges, Pistolesi worked his way around bar counters to become one of Italy’s best bartenders and Rome’s reigning king of cocktails — his last name alone is one of the active ingredients in the evolution of Italy’s craft cocktail scene.

“The nuclear physics [of cocktails] is easy to learn,” Pistolesi said. “But it’s all about trust. You have to earn your clientele. They choose you for a reason.” 

But it’s never been about flair or difficulty for the 40-year-old mixologist. “You definitely need ability,” he said, “but you have to be curious, empathic, cheeky and smiley. Remember: people come to the bar to have a good time. Nobody wants a lesson after work.” Get a taste of Rome’s cocktail renaissance with a tippling tour of some of Pistolesi’s favorite places.

Press play for more on how Patrick got behind the bar and scroll down for his favorite places to grab a drink in Rome.

Drink Kong. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Drink Kong

Creating an easy, slide-up-to-the-bar-after-work vibe is Pistolesi’s forte. For a taste of his talents, check out his 2018-opened, sci-fi-influenced cocktail lounge. 

With film series Blade Runner and Japanese manga comic books as inspiration, Kong is a 3,229-square-foot labyrinth of dark-hued lounges, backlit bars, neon lights, harlequin floors and arcade games — consider it an homage to Pistolesi’s love of neo-noir 1980s futurism.  

Drink Kong’s Customized Ice Cubes. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Kong is all about trust. It’s a self-proclaimed “instinct bar,” with a menu based on flavor. Yes, you can get a negroni, but bartenders encourage you to talk about what you like and then trust them to choose one of the carefully crafted seasonal drinks, like Summer Kup, a gin cocktail with grape juice, sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur) and Scottish peaches. Keep your eye on the ice — smooth, large cubes imprinted with Kong’s logo.

For an ultra-exclusive experience, head through the shoji doors to the Omakase Room. This tiny, cherry-wood-paneled space features a wall of caged alcoves holding rare whiskeys and sake, and a 10-seat table reserved for private tastings and master classes.

Freni e Frizioni

According to Pistolesi, this casual spot in Trastevere is a “good street bar with a punk attitude.” 

Set up like a car repair shop, the street-side stop serves up great alt-rock-inspired drinks (The New York Dolls is a violet-hued tipple of vodka, lavender liqueur and pink grapefruit) and draws a crowd for aperitivi (and its free buffet of nibbles) between 7 and 10 p.m.   

“There are a lot of people diving in and out of the bar, and it’s a great scene,” Pistolesi said.

Tiki Tiki Roof 

“In Rome, you can’t miss the rooftops and there are several with great bars,” Pistolesi said. One of the mixologist’s recent favorites is this island-themed terrace at La Griffe MGallery by Sofitel near Termini Train Station. Come for the mojitos, but stay for the views. 

The Divinity Terrace Lounge Bar

Another of the bartender’s recommendations is this scenic spot atop The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel. The alfresco lounge sits eye-to-eye with Rome’s beloved ancient monument and lets the view inspire its drink menu with cocktails like Jupiter’s Martini, an ode to the supreme divinity of Roman mythology. 

Baccano

In need of a classic martini? Pistolesi heads to this Mediterranean bistro near the Trevi Fountain. The French-style brasserie is cozy and elegant with woven seats, leather booths and a well-stocked oyster bar.  

“Baccano is [a] more serious restaurant bar and the food is great,” he said, “but you’re there for the full, good martini that just comes with style.” His choice: the extra dry Baccano Martini with a twist of lemon.

Club Derrière

Pistolesi also grabs a seat at this back-alley speakeasy on Vicolo delle Coppelle, near Piazza Navona. Another secretive spot that requires a password, the tiny bar is all about style, from its exposed walls and leather chairs to the jazz tunes that permeate the moody atmosphere. Its innovative drinks rotate regularly, but past libations have included Floral and Vanity, a spirited combination of tequila, lime, elderflower and agave syrup.

The Jerry Thomas Project

Pistolesi’s late-night lineup always includes this vanguard speakeasy that is credited with introducing craft cocktails to the Eternal City.  

“This is the bar that made [Rome’s cocktail scene] happen,” Pistolesi said. “Before Jerry Thomas, no one was making or drinking quality cocktails.” 

To enter, you’ll need a reservation, the password and a nominal membership fee, but it’s a small price to pay. The bartenders here are some of the very best in the city, and they will change up the menu on a whim. 

If you can’t decide what to order, you can count on a mean negroni here.

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel, August 2019.

Find Well-Being at Italy’s Costa Smeralda

(Photo: Marriott International)

Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda has long lured luxury vacationers seeking to enjoy its emerald green waters and chic lifestyle. But the true indulgence here might well be Sardinia’s embrace of wellness, thanks to a combination of slow living, clean air, locavore dishes and some of the best waters on Earth.

In fact, the island has been ranked as one of only five “Blue Zones” in the world for its longer-than-norm life spans. Sardinia’s Gallura region, where the Costa Smeralda is nestled, is a nexus of natural beauty and well-being and is one of the top places in the world to recharge.

Here’s how to maximize your stay in 48 hours.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Friday

Arriving in Costa Smeralda is always epic — whether flying over its shimmering waters to Olbia or mooring a private boat at Porto Cervo, the area’s picturesque seaside town.

Book a sea view suite at the Hotel Romazzino, where you can enjoy a private beach and then let your true wellness begin with a treatment at Spa My Blend By Clarins, the hotel’s onsite spa. Spread throughout two floors, Spa My Blend has four suites and a wellness area with sauna, emotional shower, steam room, Pilates and yoga studio.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Opt for one of Clarins’ quintessential Art of Touch treatments, which focus on skin rejuvenation, then book one of the head-to-toe wellness treatments that combine purifying, massage and relaxation techniques to help reboot your sleep, reduce your stress levels and boost your energy.

(Photo: Marriott International)

As the sun sets, take in the view of the island’s twinkling lights while enjoying dishes at Romazzino Restaurant from the hotel’s Equilibrium Menu. This gourmet program was created by nutritionist and bestselling British author Amanda Hamilton, who collaborated with Romazzino chef Gianni Mallao and Hotel Cala di Volpe chef Maurizio Locatelli to develop health-focused dishes based on the flavors and traditions of Sardinian cuisine, with some produce selected daily from La Fattoria, Hotel Cala di Volpe’s vegetable garden.

Guests can find Equilibrium Menu dishes at Romazzino Restaurant.

Saturday

Warm up the weekend with a personal yoga session on Hotel Romazzino’s private beach. And if you need a little more energy, join any of the property’s fitness activities, including muscle strengthening and elongation through Pilates, power workouts with boxing and functional training, and post-injury exercises, or ask to have one of the wellness gurus onsite create a bespoke workout.

Wind down the day at one of the Costa Smeralda’s famed beach clubs, like Cala Beach Club and Nikki Beach, for an afternoon of drinks, dining and dancing.

Sunday

Kick it into high gear on Sunday at the Pevero Health Trail, an eight-mile hiking and biking trail.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Starting from the grounds of Hotel Romazzino, the trail includes pedicured paths that wind around the Pevero Golf Course. For those looking for a power workout, there are inclines and fitness stations at each kilometer.

When you’ve worked up a sweat, enjoy a swim in Romazzino’s freshwater pool or head over to Hotel Cala di Volpe for the afternoon. The iconic Hotel Cala di Volpe is a mecca for those who want to keep a low profile while enjoying the Costa Smeralda’s sun and sand.

With the afternoon cooling down, you’ll want to book a treatment at the hotel’s new Shiseido Spa as the perfect closure to a weekend focused on recharging and invigorating your wellness lifestyle.

Shiseido’s holistic approach combines Eastern traditions and techniques with the most innovative advances of the 21st century — and more importantly, the spa dedicates itself to treating the body as a whole, with personalized therapeutic scrubs and massages. Afterward, enjoy a dip in the hotel’s olympic-sized saltwater pool.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Sit for an aperitivo at the hotel’s Atrium Bar followed by dinner at Matsuhisa at Cala di Volpe, Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu-style Japanese restaurant with spectacular views overlooking a charming pier lined with jaw-dropping yachts.

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveller, July 2019.

Italy. Venice, Italy. See La Serenissima Through the Eyes of James Bond

The city's iconic waterway played host to Bond. (Photo: Getty Images)

James Bond, Ian Fleming’s iconic spy and the world’s number one Casanova, has had a love affair with Venice ever since the final scenes of 1963’s “From Russia With Love,” when Sean Connery’s Bond snuck off on a gondola ride with Russian agent Tatiana Romanova.

There’s no doubt that Venice is an incredible backdrop for romance — a beautiful tangle of 16th-century campi makes it an incredible setting for films, but La Serenissima also sets the stage for dynamic action.

And nobody does it better than Bond, whose spy-jinx brought him back to the floating city in three different films: “From Russia With Love,” “Moonraker” (1979) with Roger Moore, and “Casino Royale” (2006) with Daniel Craig.

Here’s where and how to experience Venice like James Bond.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal, the main waterway that courses through Venice, weaves its way through all three Bond films, but there was probably no more dramatic and glamorous movie moment than in “Casino Royal.”

In this flick, a newly retired Bond and Vesper sail through the city along the canal, passing all the requisite Venice landmarks, including Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, the Campanile of San Marco, Church of the Salute and the Accademia and Rialto bridges.

Bond’s Eye View: Buy a full-day vaporetto ticket and spend your afternoon coursing the Grand Canal on the local water bus (No. 1 or No. 2 will do). To admire the canal for a longer spell, book a stay at The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, or plan dinner at its restaurant, The Gritti Terrace, which overlooks the striking canal.

Piazza San Marco

Make like Bond and dash through the Piazza San Marco. (Photo: Getty Images)

Make like Bond and dash through the Piazza San Marco. (Photo: Getty Images)

Piazza San Marco, Venice’s largest square, named for the city’s patron saint, serves as backdrop to a desperate Daniel Craig as he runs through the square in search of his love, Vesper Lynd, in “Casino Royale,” after realizing she has betrayed him.

Bond’s Eye View: Though the Basel Bank featured in the film doesn’t exist, Piazza San Marco and its beautiful arcades still do and are open to the public.

Torre dell’Orologio

The Piazza San Marco also gets a second of screen time in “Moonraker,” but the true focus is on the Torre dell’Orologio, an early Renaissance clock tower nearing 300 feet in height.

After Roger Moore’s Bond faces an incredible kendo fight sequence in a glass shop — actually the historic Venini boutique in San Marco — he finds himself in a chase with Drax henchman Chang in the clock tower. Bond ultimately tosses Chang through the clock’s stained-glass face, though this face was a replica made for the movie.

Bond’s Eye View: The clock tower is visitable by reservation, Monday through Wednesday, at 11 a.m. and noon, and Thursday through Sunday, at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Rialto Fish Market

On the sestiere San Polo side of the Rialto bridge is the city’s pescheria, a centuries-old fish market set in a neo-Gothic loggia. And it’s in the loggia shade that Quantum agent Adolf Gettler is lurking when Vesper and Bond sail down the Grand Canal in “Casino Royale.”

Bond’s Eye View: Doff your best fedora and head to the Rialto Bridge; from there you can’t miss the market.

Palazzo Pisani

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

In “Casino Royale,” the minutes leading up to the demise of Vesper Lynd occur in the courtyard of Palazzo Pisani. The Baroque-style Palazzo Pisani has an incredible courtyard, where Vesper has her fateful meeting with Gettler before Bond tries to save her.

Vesper ends up running through the abandoned palazzo and locking herself in an elevator as the palace’s flotation devices give way and sink into the Grand Canal in one of the most epic Bond scenes ever.

Bond’s Eye View: While there is no way to reenact the sinking palace, Palazzo Pisani is the home to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello, a second-century music conservatory that regularly holds concerts in its halls and famous courtyard.

You can also get eye to eye with the palazzo’s facade by taking Traghetto S. Angelo to San Toma for just two euro.

Ponte dei Sospiri

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Bridge of Sighs is only appropriate. (Photo: Getty Images)

Venice’s most famous bridge has long been a photo op spot thanks to its picture-perfect setting. The enclosed limestone bridge was built in the mid-1600s to connect the Doge’s Palace to the nuove prigioni (new prisons).

More infamous than famous, the bridge is known as the “Bridge of Sighs” for the last breaths of freedom that convicted persons would have before heading to the cells. In the final scene of “From Russia with Love,” Sean Connery’s Bond cozies up with Russian agent Tatiana Romanova in a gondola as they pass under the Bridge of Sighs.

Bond’s Eye View: Hire a gondola from the Stazio Danieli and reenact the scene for yourself.

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, June 2019.

A Local's Guide to Rome, Italy.... By The Way

My favorite question is being what I really do in Rome- where I really go and what I really love. And as a travel writer, I can tell you that there is no bigger compliment than being asked to write about her neighborhood. You can imagine how flattered I was when Washington Post as me to be a contributor to WaPo’s new travel platform By The Way. For my Rome guide (yep, it’s all mine and all about me) I share the places I hang out- where everyone body knows my name, my dog and even my kids. Next time you are in Rome, stop by anyone of these places and look around- you’ll probably catch me.

All photos by Ginevra Sammartino

All photos by Ginevra Sammartino

Rome is beautiful chaos and contradictions, and this should absolutely be expected from a city whose thousands of years of history and personalities have formed its pulsating present. You first get a hint of its noncommittal nature while driving into the city from the airport, passing fields with roaming sheep. The highway flows into an austere neighborhood designed in the 1930s, where every building was intended to be a monument. And then the chaos begins: Congested neighborhoods snake up the Tiber River leading to the centro storico (historic center), where Baroque palaces and churches fight with ancient monuments for a little elbow room. 

There is no patience, and there shouldn’t be. This is Rome, where anything goes. The energy can be overwhelming. Keep walking around; eventually, you’ll realize that Rome is not quite as big as you thought — geographically and socially. Everyone knows everyone. If you visit the same places and piazzas a few times, you’ll find that they know you, too.

Photo by Erica Firpo.

IN THE ACTION

Monti

Monti is the perfect mix of busy bars, great restaurants, trendy stores and some of the most recognizable historic sites. This is where you’ll find cool, chic and even quirky boutique hotels and some of Rome’s best Airbnbs. Don’t expect brand names, but don’t worry about it. Find this neighborhood.

LOW-KEY

Villa Borghese

Villa Borghese, specifically, is the city’s prettiest park and sits quietly between the historic center and Parioli, a residential neighborhood. The few hotels lining its perimeter have panoramic views and hidden pools. It’s just close enough to the center to feel in the know and just far away enough to be a breath of fresh air. Find this neighborhood.

INSIGHTS

3 things locals think you should know

  1. Nobody nurses their morning caffe. Drink it fast, and then go.

  2. The word “piacere” (or “pleased” to meet you, pronounced pee-ah-CHAIR-ray) and a smile go a long way.

  3. Once you sit down at a restaurant (and unless told otherwise), the table is yours for the rest of the evening. Basta.

(Rome illustrators Blend Studio for The Washington Post)

BREAKFAST

Roscioli Caffe

After they cornered the market on pizza and bread at Antico Forno bakery for four generations, the Roscioli brothers opened a neighborhood coffee bar and pastry shop, which, despite little standing room, never fails to please locals. Along with spectacular coffee drinks (hot ones come in heated cups), the pastries are divine. Many are old-school, hard-to-find Roman dolci. If you don’t do sweet, the selection of salati (savory sandwiches) is big and creative. Go for the thinly sliced pastrami on homemade cornetto and the club sandwich with an over-easy egg.

BTW: Come before 9 a.m. to get a place at the counter. The back table is bookable, too.

BREAKFAST

Marigold

Rome finally has a little hygge, thanks to pastry chef Sofie Wochner and her partner, Domenico Cortese. The simple micro-bakery and restaurant may be one of the first sweet-and-savory brunch venues in the city. Guests come from around Rome for Wochner’s confections, including cinnamon twists, as well as homemade butter (made from kefir) and rye bread. Cortese, the mastermind behind dinner and lunch, makes daily sandwiches that are chef’s choice, with mustard aioli and Wochner’s sourdough.

BTW: Marigold doesn’t take reservations on the weekends.

LUNCH

Mercato Testaccio

This local market’s 100-plus vendors (produce, cheese, meat, fish, specialty foods, housewares) make it a great community hangout. Lunch standouts include fresh pasta of the day at Le Mani in Pasta (Box 58), vegan burgers and tacos at Sano (Box 3), mini pizzas at Da Artenio (Box 90) and fried delicacies at Mastro Papone (Box 96). In other words, every kind of eater can dine here all afternoon.

BTW: Bring cash, and if you are really hungry, head straight to sandwich shop Mordì e Vai (Box 15) before the nonni beat you there.

LUNCH

Supplizio

The kind of hole-in-the-wall you’d walk by without giving it a second look. But stop: The small Supplizio is chef Arcangelo Dandini’s full-service incarnation of Rome’s staple fried fast food, the suppli, (deep-fried rice balls filled with mozzarella, tomato sauce and chicken giblets). Dandini’s are award-winning, and here he introduces different interpretations, from classico to carbonara, and cacio pepe (yes, your favorite Roman pasta, fried).

BTW: Beyond rice balls, Dandini’s lineup includes polpette al mio garum (fried anchovy balls) and the fave dessert, crema fritta (fried cream custard).

Luciano.jpg

DINNER

Luciano Cucina

Luciano Cucina is a next-generation trattoria, thanks to chef Luciano Monosilio. He’s known as the King of Carbonara, a title he rightfully deserves since elevating the typical Roman dish to Michelin-star status. The restaurant, with an absolutely-not-rustic, very contemporary design, features an exposed pasta lab and open kitchen and a menu with his award-winning (and must-try) carbonara and other traditional favorites. But the fun is in his creative Contemporanee (contemporary) and Ripiene (stuffed) pasta dishes: fettuccella ajo, ojo e bottarga di muggine — his version of pasta sauteed with garlic, pepper and olive oil and topped with cured fish roe.

BTW: Contrary to what you’d think, reserve no earlier than 9 p.m. It’s when Luciano gets lively.

DINNER

Seu Pizza Illuminati

Seu Pizza is the precise opposite of a typical Roman pizzeria: stylish, with mod furniture and art pieces, and the feel of an art gallery. But you’re here for the pizza. Daniele Seu, the pizzaiolo (pizza-maker), is a dough magician whose thicker impasto and crusts will quickly obliterate any recollection of thin-crusted Roman-style pizza. (It is that good.) His menu is anchored with classics, but it’s Seu’s occasionally mind-bogglingly delicious creations — like the Gamberita, raw red shrimp atop buffalo mozzarella — that keep people coming back.

BTW: Choose a bunch of pizzas to share, and ask the waiter to serve them in the chef’s preferred order. 

Photo by The Jerry Thomas Project.

LATE-NIGHT

Jerry Thomas Speakeasy

Although Jerry Thomas may no longer be a secret, it is still the choice of the late-evening-cocktail crowd. The bar is immaculately styled in 1920s retro, tiny and limited to reservations. (Call in the late afternoons.) Created as a hangout for restaurant-industry professionals, Jerry’s bartenders are colleagues and friends who make expert cocktails and personal creations. Bonus points: The team rolls deep in female bartenders who are innovating the mixology arena.

BTW: An ideal spot if you don’t want to be seen.

LATE-NIGHT

L’Angolo Divino

L’Angolo Divino is the enoteca (wine bar) of your dreams: a rustic corner spot with low lighting, lots of great labels and an owner, Massimo, who has something to say about every single bottle. The wine list includes the usual suspects (yes, you can try a Super Tuscan, Amarone or Barolo), as well as unexpected bubbles, natural wines and hard-to-find producers. The list may be heavy on Italians, but international wines are represented.

BTW: Ask Massimo about his favorite Lazio wines. A world of conversation and tasting will start, and you may make a friend for life.

Bike the Appia Antica

Loving Rome means getting out of the city, so we’re lucky the Romans built amazing streets crossing the country. The oldest and longest is the Via Appia Antica, and you need to travel only a tiny stretch to feel like you’re in the country. From just before exiting the ancient walls to, heading southeast, the edge of the Parco Appia Antica, most of the road is still original basalt stone and is one of the prettiest bike rides the city has to offer. The ride is lined with ancient monuments, tombs and Roman pines along fields of green. Expect to pass flocks of meandering sheep.

BTW: You can rent bikes at Appia Antica Caffe, a fine starting point, and have a great home-cooked meal there.

Galleria Nazionale

Where Italy’s national collection of modern and contemporary art is held. A walk through the neoclassical building is a visual lesson in Italian art as told via magnificent paintings, sculptures and videos by era-defining artists like Canova, Modigliani, Manzoni, Clemente and Penoni. The collection also includes non-Italians, such as Twombly and LeWitt. Their order is not chronological (either confusing — or fun).

BTW: The best location for art selfies, especially because La Galleria is the last place anyone ever visits. 

MURo and street art in Quadraro

For art history in the making, take a 25-minute drive southeast. Quadraro, a small enclave embedded between ancient history — aqueducts, Roman villas, case popolari (1930s low-income housing) — and Cinecittà is the city’s first outdoor museum dedicated to urban art (Museo Urbano di Roma, a.k.a. MURo). Walk around, and you’ll come face to face with murals by artists including Gary Baseman (his gray-toned piece is a nice starting point), Diavu, Alice Pasquini, Ron English and more.

BTW: MURo (founded by Diavu) offers artist-led tours of the neighborhood in Italian, English, Spanish and French. 

Artisanal Cornucopia

Artisanal Cornucopia is part salon, part gallery and part concept boutique — a cornucopia of fabulous clothing, shoes, accessories and art pieces. Owner Elif Sallorenzo’s collection covers the entire gamut of social opportunities, from cuddling in front of the TV and beach days to dinner parties and weddings. She loves craftsmanship and selects pieces from both emerging designers and coveted creators, including Aquazzura (Edgardo is a good friend), Giulia Barela, Misela and Segni di Gi. And she likes things that are 100 percent made in Italy, so expect to find one-of-a-kind handbags by Benedetta Bruzziches and more.

BTW: If Elif is in, talk to her. She knows everyone and every place. 

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Villa Doria Pamphilj

The largest landscaped park in Rome, Villa Pamphilj is a favorite afternoon hangout and workout area. If you want to run, bike, play volleyball, soccer or informally TRX out in the open, this is where you want to be. It’s open until 9 p.m. in the warmest months.

BTW: Back in the day, Moammar Gaddafi, the longtime ruler of Libya, loved its beautiful, bucolic vibe so much that he set up camp here with his entourage.

Villa Farnesina

Villa Farnesina is probably the best-kept art secret in Rome. The two-level stand-alone villa was originally a vacation home for one of the pope’s financiers who had the foresight to invest in architect Baldassarre Peruzzi and his friend, the up-and-coming artist Raffaele Sanzio, a.k.a. Raphael. The entire ground-floor fresco cycles are painted by Raphael, while the first-level frescoes are by Renaissance greats Il Sodoma and Sebastiano del Piombo.

BTW: Most days, the museum is quiet, and you’ll have Raphael’s masterpiece Galatea fresco all to yourself. 

Eat Like a Chef: Pier Daniele Seu, Rome

Young-gun pizzaiolo Pier Daniele Seu bakes with an attitude as fresh as his divine, dough-licious pies. The current don of Rome’s pizza scene, Pier Daniele is renowned for his super-light dough and experimental toppings, underscored by a respect for tradition (he spent 3 years studying Neapolitan and Roman techniques at pizza institution Mastro Titta). 

After wowing the fooderati with his stall at Mercato Centrale, Pier Daniele opened his own restaurant Seu Pizza Illuminati in Trastevere last year. Away from the kitchen, you’ll catch him at one of these Rome restaurants.

Retrobottega

Creative duo Giuseppe Lo Ludice and Alessandro Miocchi’s retro bottega stays open from midday through to midnight and the beauty is precisely their non-stop service – though it’s first come, first served. Their focus is entirely on the food and it’s delicious. Try to aim for a seat at the double kitchen counter where you can admire their magic close up. 

Via della Stelletta, 4, retro-bottega.com

Pascucci

When you want to up the romance or have an occasion to celebrate, this is a wonderful spot. Gianfranco Pascucci’s artistic plates are created with incredible technique and precision, with an impressive selection of fish. This restaurant is very dear to me.

Viale Traiano, 85, Fiumicino, pascuccialporticciolo.com

Osteria Dell'Orologio

Perfect for Sunday lunch, especially on a sunny day. Chef Marco Claroni handpicks a rainbow of fish fresh from the boats in Fiumicino each morning and has an incredible ability to fuse tradition and innovation without losing authenticity.

Via della Torre Clementina, 114, osteriadellorologio.net

ZIA

A new opening in Trastevere that’s perfect for an intimate and elegant dinner. Chefs Antonia and Ida bring a magnetic energy to their kitchen using a wonderful blend of French technique, style and skill to rework flavours.

Via Goffredo Mameli, 45, ziarestaurant.com

Pizzarium 

It needs no introduction, this rave-busy counter is an institution for anyone who passes through Rome. Thankfully it’s open all day for whenever the desire for pizza overtakes us.

Via Trionfale, 30, bonci.it

To Florence, With Love

Three reasons you’ll fall for Tuscany’s capital.

Photo: Erica Firpo

Colpo di fulmine, that’s what Italians call love at first sight—a ground-shaking thunderbolt that shocks you from the first look. It’s hard not to feel that bolt when you set foot in Florence, partly because of the sheer beauty of the city, with its tangle of parks and piazzas, and partly because it fuses the past with the present. Even as Florence embraces renewal, the metropolis holds steadfast to the ideals that helped lead Europe out of the Middle Ages during the Renaissance long ago, including a commitment to the arts. Is it any wonder that Tuscany’s capital fascinates travelers, who come for a glimpse only to find themselves falling hard? Read on to get the lay of the land and discover three sides of the storied city.

Lay of the Land

Long considered the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence believes itself to be the heart of Italy. Geographically, it lies about halfway between Venice and Rome, in the region of Tuscany. Reachable by North American air carriers via connections through Rome, Milan, and other European cities, Florence is also a major hub for railway transport. While exploring Tuscany requires a car, for Florence, one needs only a great pair of walking shoes, as the main attractions lie within about two square miles.

Building on the site of an Etruscan settlement turned Roman military colony, the Medicis (a political dynasty that once ruled Florence) created a graceful city of piazzas, palaces, and promenades. Today’s urban layout is almost identical to that of Florence’s 16th-century heyday. The Centro Storico, or historic center, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and straddles both sides of the Arno River in a gorgeous knot of medieval- and Renaissance-era streets that subdivide into niche neighborhoods. These tiny districts are often anchored by the piazzas they’re named after and are usually within a 5-to-10-minute walk of one another, so wandering around the city feels like a kind of historical-piazza hopscotch.

Most of the Centro Storico lies north of the Arno River. But if you cross the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge spanning the waterway, you’ll enter the residential neighborhood of Oltrarno, which has been home to Florence’s artisans since the early Renaissance. Explore Oltrarno’s Piazza di Santo Spirito or Via Maggio to view the newest generation of Florentine craftspeople, from traditional goldsmiths and jewelry makers to clothing designers and street artists.

The Culture

There are not enough days in the year to enjoy each of the cultural sites of Florence, which span all corners of the city and range from Renaissance masterpieces and Roman antiquities to contemporary art, fashion, and design. Begin north of the Arno and work your way south, starting on the narrow Via Ricasoli, where the Galleria dell’Accademia (58/60 Via Ricasoli; 011-39-055-098-7100; site in Italian; admission, $18*; reservations recommended) houses Michelangelo’s David along with a small collection of his unfinished sculptures, as well as works by other Renaissance artists.

About a five-minute walk away lies the emblem of Florence: the Piazza del Duomo. Its centerpiece is the encrusted marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Piazza del Duomo), also known as the Duomo because of its famous dome by master architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Once you’ve seen your fill, head to the Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza degli Strozzi; 011-39-055-264-5155; admission, $15), a few blocks southwest, for a different perspective on the city’s artistic legacy. The museum hosts blockbuster temporary exhibitions highlighting everything from the art of the ancient world to works by today’s superstar artists, such as Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei.

Follow the sightseeing crowds to the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria, the political center of the city and an open-air museum. Here you’ll find an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Davidin front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-276-8325; admission, $11), a 700-year-old fortress that today serves as Florence’s city hall and mayor’s office in addition to being a museum open to visitors. The standout room of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), a monumental meeting space with larger-than-life frescoes by Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari. Immediately adjacent to the building is the Loggia dei Lanzi (Piazza della Signoria; 011-39-055-23885; admission, free), an arcaded open-air gallery showcasing Renaissance sculpture.

Nearby is the Gallerie degli Uffizi (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $25 in high season, $15 in low season), a lavishly decorated multilevel building designed by Giorgio Vasari as the offices of the Medici family. Known fondly as the Uffizi, it holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Italian Renaissance art yet still manages to constantly upgrade its offerings by establishing new rooms to appreciate the greats, such as Raphael, or by hosting epic exhibitions, such as the one last year commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death.

Yet despite the many wonders these museums hold, Florence’s greatest work of art might be its landscape, and to fully appreciate it, you have only to cross the Arno. South of the river lies the Giardino di Boboli (1 Palazzo Pitti; 011-39-055-294-883; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino Bardini), a park that was once the Medicis’ playground, and the Giardino Bardini (1r Via dei Bardi; 011-39-055-2006-6233; admission, $11, including entry to Giardino di Boboli), a tiered garden in the Oltrarno. In the latter, Michelin-starred restaurant La Leggenda dei Frati (6/a Costa S. Giorgio; 011-39-055-068-0545; site in Italian; classic tasting menu for two, $240) looks out on the lush grounds.


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The Food

In Florence, the cuisine is subtle and elegant, and simple dishes are proudly made with mostly local ingredients. Restaurants such as Trattoria Sabatino (2r Via Pisana; 011-39-055-225-955; site in Italian; dinner for two, $23), which lies south of the Arno, cheerfully dole out heirloom Florentine recipes such as minestrone di fagioli e riso (rice and bean soup) or trippa alla fiorentina (tripe, a dish made with cow stomach, is an Italian specialty) at affordable prices.

North of the river, Florentine elegance is epitomized at the Piazza della Repubblica, the city’s center in the time of ancient Rome. On its northeast corner is Caffè Gilli (1r Via Roma; 011-39-055-213-896; cocktails for two, $18), the oldest café in the city. Two other piazzas—Santa Croce and Sant’Ambrogio—are foodie musts. Both are residential areas with squares flanked by a parish church and streets lined with butcher shops, bakeries, electricians, hair salons, and the like. Here you can expect quiet mornings, post-school chaos, and early evenings filled with dog walkers—as well as some of the best food in town.

In the Santa Croce neighborhood, Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo (3r Piazza dei Peruzzi; 011-39-055-217-919; dinner for two, $100) prepares heritage dishes that are made from hard-to-find and often foraged regional ingredients and are therefore on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile, chef Fabio Picchi, the city’s culinary emperor, demonstrates Florence’s spirit of innovation with his suite of restaurants in the Sant’Ambrogio neighborhood. Cibrèo Ristorante (8r Via Andrea del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $140)Cibrèo Trattoria (122r Via de’ Macci; 011-39-055-234-1100; dinner for two, $52), and Cibrèo Caffè (5r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-234-5853; dinner for two, $90) all focus on Picchi’s signature dishes, while Ciblèo (2r Via del Verrocchio; 011-39-055-247-7881; dinner for two, $90) adopts a Tuscan-Asian fusion approach, mixing Italian ingredients and recipes with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditions.

The Shops

Florence is as much about shopping and people-watching as it is about sightseeing. On the northern end of Centro Storico, the small square of Piazza San Lorenzo has a vibrant market, Mercato di San Lorenzo, that’s best known for its leather goods. The piazza gets its name from the Basilica di San Lorenzo church, which used to be a parish church of the Medici family.

Since the 14th century, the Via de’ Tornabuoni has been a runway for beautiful palaces and people. International brands keep a foothold here, from the Piazza degli Antinori to the Ponte Santa Trinità. The city’s side streets also hide treasures. Along them sit two time capsules: the flagship store of the nearly 300-year-old porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori (17r Via dei Rondinelli; 011-39-055-210-041)—an exquisite showroom with vaulted frescoed ceilings—and Aquaflor (6 Borgo Santa Croce; 011-39-055-234-3471; site in Italian), an intriguing custom perfumery that feels like vintage Florence.

For a more contemporary spin on the city’s crafts scene, visit Florence Factory (6/8 Via dei Neri; 011-39-055-205-2952; site in Italian), which showcases goods made by artisans from the Oltrarno neighborhood. Or check out Cuoiofficine (116r Via de’ Guicciardini; 011-39-055-286-652), whose leather purses and wallets combine 17th-century marbling patterns and contemporary leather-tattooing techniques to create designs that are reminiscent of centuries past. (All leather goods can be customized.) Take the time you need to find a memento that’s just right—after all, it would be a shame to leave Florence without your own piece of la dolce vita.

This article first appeared as a feature in Endless Vacation, Summer 2019.

Giants, Spirits and the Holy Grail? Unravel the Mysteries and Legends of Venice

Unlock some of Venice's most mysterious legends. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gondoliers who can walk on water. Monster masks that can ward off the devil. Haunted palaces, meandering ghosts and magic stones. Venice is a city built on legends, lore and mysteries.

Every calle leads to a new mystery, and through every sottoportego is a new legend to explore. Below are some of the most intriguing tales.

Witches Wake-Up Call

In the labyrinthine streets near the Accademia Gallery is the quiet Calle della Toletta, where a so-called “witch’s clock” keeps the neighborhood ticking. Hanging off exterior piping (look for a yellow house) is an old-school alarm clock.

Legend says that a witch once lived here and dabbled in the business of black magic. She used the alarm to remind her customers their payments were due. When she died, the local residents hung an alarm clock on the building in jest.

Years later, it was removed, and the neighbors began to talk of strange happenings, odd sounds and random accidents. The clock was returned to its position, and the events stopped. Years later the clock was removed, and the neighbors again claimed unexplained events, so the clock was placed back permanently.

Death in Venice

Walk by the columns of San Marco and San Todaro — but not between them. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Council of Ten — a feared governing body — ruled the city from 1310 to 1797 with eyes everywhere thanks to its hundreds of anonymous informants who shared residents’ secrets and lies, condemning many to prison and death.

According to gossip, the narrow Calle della Morte was the Council of Ten’s “death alley,” an advantageous location where condemned people would be tricked into visiting only to be killed on site. Most likely, the street is named after a dead body found in that location.

What is fact is that the secretive Council of Ten were very forthcoming with public executions and designated the small area between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro at Piazza San Marco as a site for city-sanctioned deaths, and to this day, Venetians do not walk between the columns. Take a stroll here from the nearby Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice.

The Giant of Corte Bressana

Listen for the bells. (Photo: Alamy)

Venice is a chameleon of a city, changing its personality drastically from daytime charm to nighttime fright. According to Castello neighbors, if you find yourself meandering the streets surrounding the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo after midnight, you may meet a giant looking to buy his bones back.

Who’s the giant? According to legend, he’s one of the last bell ringers of St. Mark’s Bell Tower, clocking in at nearly seven feet tall. The Bell Ringer’s height made him such a local celebrity that the director of a scientific institute offered him a small fee to leave his skeleton to science upon death. The giant bell ringer agreed to the offer, rationalizing that he would outlive the institute director and the deal would be forgotten.

To the contrary, the bell ringer died shortly thereafter, and his skeleton went on display at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia. Castello residents say that every night, just before midnight, the skeleton walks out of the museum to Piazza San Marco, where he climbs to the top of the bell tower, rings the bells and then walks the streets toward his home on Corte Bressana (Castello) begging for money to buy back his skeleton.

The Holy Grail

Pretty much everyone agrees that the most coveted artifact for would-be Indiana Joneses is the Holy Grail, aka the chalice that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

According to legend, after Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood in the cup, the Grail was removed from sight for centuries and eventually secreted away to Glastonbury by the Knights Templar.

Here’s where the Venetians have a bit of a deviation. At some point before the Grail’s journey to the British Isles, it was hidden in none other than the throne of the Apostle Peter (a marble seat), forcibly removed from Constantinople during the Crusades and brought to Venice with the rest of the plunder. Where’s the chair today? Inside the Basilica of San Pietro in Castello.

House of the Spirits

Are you a believer in dark magic? (Photo: Alamy)

A quick 6-minute vaporetto ride from The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, at the edge of the Fondamenta Nuova in Cannaregio sits a beautiful 16th-century palace overlooking the water. For centuries, the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, better known as the Casin degli Spiriti (house of the spirits), has been notoriously recognized as a hub of dark magic; a preferred location for cults, orgies, pirates and smugglers; and as a gathering place for the restless spirits of Venice.

One ghost in particular can’t seem to leave — that of Pietro Luzzo, a painter who shot himself in the palace grounds, despairing of unrequited love. The day after he died, his tormented ghost appeared at one of the palace’s windows, prompting the owner to cover it with bricks.

Luzzo appeared at another window and then another, until the owner walled in all of the palace’s windows. Supposedly, Luzzo continues to haunt the palace, returning on dark evenings, screaming throughout the palace.

This article first appeared in Marriott Traveler, April 2019.

Fill up with Rome's King of Carbonara Luciano Monosilio

Catching up with the King of Carbonara, Luciano Monosilio at his restaurant Luciano Cucina. Photo: Darius Arya

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There is something about carbonara. When it is good, it is amazing and when it’s bad, it’s breakfast. I should know. I grew up eating carbonara at least once a week until September 2013, when I eat a plate of Luciano Monosilio’s award-winning carbonara. My mind was blown- what kind of eggs did he use? what did he do to the guanciale. I stopped eating carbonara that very day, and would only allow myself my favorite dish if Luciano made it or it was recognized as just as amazing. In 2014, I ate carbonara only four times so you can guess how good his is.

Luciano is Italy’s reigning King of Carbonara and currently chef/owner of Luciano Cucina. From Albano Laziale to Michelin starred chef, in just a few years, Luciano put my favorite dish, carbonara, in the center of the table and in conversation all over Italy. And then he decided to step out of the box and literally turn the tables by going solo with his eponymous Luciano Cucina, a new gen trattoria subtly spreading the culinary renaissance all over Italy. He’s my first podcast guest, and I’m lucky thatLuciano Cucina is just around the corner from my home in Campo de’ Fiori.

MORE FROM THIS EPISODE

Want to hear Luciano tell all on what makes Carbonara the very best comfort food in the world? Grab a fork, press play on the player above and catch the conversation with JJ Martin of La Double J.

Chef Luciano Monosilio. Photo: Erica Firpo

Carbonara’s key ingredients. Photo: Erica Firpo

Me and Chef Luciano Monosilio, aka the only man who has ever made me cry…. for carbonara. Photo: Darius Arya

TUNE IN

…and keep listening as I sit down at the table with innovators, creators, artists, and more who are revolutionizing travel and culture in Italy. New episodes drop every Monday with a light blog post and link to my Patreon page. What’s that? Patreon is a way for you to be a part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast and be surprised with behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Like I said, I love listening so if there is someone you think I should interview or have ideas on how to make this podcast even more amazing, let me know.