TRAVEL

There's Something About Florence

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

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

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

Window Shopping

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

Earthly Delights

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

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

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

Just desserts at Trattoria Sabatino.

Eye Candy

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

Radical Utopias, courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi.

View from the Hotel Savoy.

Pillow Talk

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

Weekender: Lisbon

Requisite, shameless Lisbon self-portrait.

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

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

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

Roterdao  (Cais do Sodré)


Roterdao (Cais do Sodré)

Monument

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

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

Ascensor da Glòria (Baixa/Bairro Alto)

Neighborhood

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

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

Oceanario (Parque de Naçoes

Food

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

Prego at Cafe Beira Gare (Baixa)

Tips and Tricks

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

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

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

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

On the hunt for OneMoreDish in Rome

A Very Personal Food Tour of Rome

Finding the very best dish in Rome is a Sisyphean task. Seriously.  Roman food is well represented, and rightfully so - old school, new style, street food, Michelin - all over the city, and lately, there is always something new popping up so searching for "the best" is an endless journey.  A great restaurant in Rome is an always-changing sum of mood, weather, ambition, expectations, patience, hankering, quality, location, ambience and a few more inexplicables that are relevant often only in that particular moment.  With that in mind, I don't look for the Best, I'm looking for an experience and a surprise, like the perfect plate of puntarelle, a surprise sanguinella (blood orange) gelato or a satisfying sandwich, exactly why I jumped to the task when Alexandra Romanoff of OneMoreDish asked me to create a food itinerary for day trip to Rome.

Full Disclosure:  Alexandra is an old friend.  We've been eating together since she lived in Rome a few years back where I quickly understood her vibe on food- a dedication to experiencing as much as possible.  She's a flyweight with the voracity of a T-Rex, and the more I hang out with her, the more I come to think of her a gastronomic John Anderton/Minority Report, preemptively envisioning dishes, snacks, restaurants, and that one more dish days before the table is set.  And Alexandra is OneMoreDish, a fabulous and intrepid food-centric Instagram profile that has been featured in ExtraCrispy, TastingTable, MeatPacking District,  Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, Maxim, amnewyork, Refinery29 and more.  For her upcoming visit, I lined up favorite food groups - pizza, pasta, panini and gelato for a day out in Rome.

8 hours, 6 meals and 2 Desserts

Alexandra only has eyes for eating as much as possible, so I focused on efficiency.  Conveniently for us, my backyard at Campo de' Fiori is the perfect place to start any food quest, a central HQ to walk to all corners of Aurelian's Rome.  Our journey took us to stand-up and sit-down spots in Campo, Trevi, Trastevere and Testaccio, and back,  each no more than a 30-minute light strut from my home base.  Grouped by food genre (so you can pick and choose at your fancy), here's where, why and what we ate:

PIZZA

 La Renella A serendipitous blast from the past.  Long ago, when I lived in the neighborhood, I ate a slice of pizza al taglio from Renella everyday, vowing it was the best.  I evenutally moved out of Trastevere and moved on to other forni and panifici, forgetting about my beloved Renella.  Thanks to our spur of the moment food tour,  we short cut through Trastevere's Piazza Trilussa, I found myself walking up via del Moro and enveloped in that mesmerizing freshly baked pizza aroma.  My recall kicked in and Renella became our surprise stop: a slice of pizza rossa (light tomato sauce) with roasted peppers, a smattering of parsley and flakes of fior di latte cheese, which we took to go, enjoying it as we crossed Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Location:  Trastevere

Baffetto 2  Alexandra asked for something light, easy and near by. Easy enough, pizza romana at Baffetto 2.  With so much talk about "the best pizza" in Rome and waxing poetic on flour, I've lost track of where I'm supposed to eat pizza.  Instead, I stick with old faithful Baffetto 2, a no-frills neighborhood pizzeria. We've known the pizzaiolo for a few years and he knows so we like our pizzas extra thin and crispy, so we are never disappointed.  And it constantly stands up to the Bellardini Test, a centuries-old method of assessing dough quality and consistency by holding out a slice out horizontal to see how well and long its holds out [tried and true pefected by Ettore Bellardini of Antiqua Tours ]. Our choice for the quest was an extra crispy pizza bianca (white pizza- cheese with no tomato sauce) and fiori di zucca, zucchini followers with no anchovies (Alexandra's preference, not mine).

Location:  Campo de' Fiori.

Pizza al taglio, by the slice, at La Renella in Trastevere. Photo by Alexandra Romanoff/OneMoreDish

Pizza romana, at Baffetto 2 in Campo de' Fiori. Photo by Alexandra Romanoff/OneMoreDish

PASTA

Roscioli Everybody loves Roscioli.  Over the years, its name  alone has become synonymous with Rome and its food scene as the not-to-miss salumeria.  Roscioli's popularity means advance booking, usually means a week or more ahead of time, or fall in line with the pedestrian-traffic-stopping queue on via dei Giubbonari.   And with good reason: the pastas are to die for.  We snuck in  seat at Roscioli's nextdoor caffe (ask Tommaso for the restaurant menu) and ordered light, choosing caciopepe instead of its award-winning carbonara.  For those who have never tasted caciopepe, it is the ideal comfort food which Roscioli does it to perfection-  freshly cracked black and red pepper, piquant pecorino and fresh pasta.

Location:  Campo de' Fiori

Pipero You knew this was going to be on the list, because I won't let anyone leave Rome without tasting my favorite pasta dish. At this point in life, the only person who I trust to make it is Chef Luciano Monosilio of Pipero. Luciano is a rockstar and magician.  His carbonara is perfectly balanced with pecorino and parmigiano cheese, egg yellows, and guanciale smoked and grilled separately. And Pipero the restaurant is like no other- gorgeous, high ceiling space with Flos lamps and design chairs. What I love best are the tables spaced just enough apart from each other that you can't accidentally eavesdrop, and I feel like the carbonara is all mine.

Location:  Campo de' Fiori/Chiesa Nuova

 Al Moro Okay, I lied.  I also love spaghetti al moro, a piquant twist on carbonara that makes me think of yesteryear dinners with my great aunts, and Jonathan Gold, the LA Times food critic who once dined at Al Moro for 10 days in a row.  I have a routine at Al Moro- carbonara followed by a freshly made zabaglione with melted dark chocolate, but this time happenstance placed a dish of ovoli, those seasonal, crimson-lined mushrooms that Julius Caesar loved, served thinly sliced with shards of grovière, on our table.

Location:  Trevi

Caciopepe from Roscioli Salumeria by Campo de' Fiori. Photo by Alexandra Romanoff/OneMoreDish.

Carbonara at Pipero by Campo de' Fiori. Photo by Alexandra Romanoff/Onemoredish.

Ovuli from Al Moro by Trevi.

PANINI

Volpetti  Alexandra is a New Yorker, which means she has at least one top notch alimentari/ salumeria (delicatessen) in her rolodex.... for every city.  For Romans,  the alimentari is usually sottocasa, (just below the house) or within close walking distance.   While she lived in Rome,  her alimentari was Volpetti, a historic salumeria in Testaccio, slightly out of my comfort zone but worth the walk.   Alexandra customized a prosciutto crudo, mozzarella and pickled artichokes on pizza bread sandwich with a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Location: Testaccio

Panino from Volpetti in Testaccio.

GELATO

 Corona  I love Corona, my tiny neighborhoood gelateria that often is overlooked with all of those overly artisanal ice cream shops populating the city.  The shop is simple, no bells and whistles, just a dozen flavors. Each season and micro-season, owner Alesandro creates new and unique flavors like marron glacè, along with the old staples including stracciatella and cioccolato al latte.  Our choice was a triple scoop of lamponi banane (raspberry banana), cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate) and sesamo (sesame), a bizarre and extraordinarily satisfying combination. 

Location:  Largo Argentina

Fatamorgana is one of those gelateria that has about at least twenty artisanal flavors at any given time, but the difference is that MariaAgnese's recipes are all natural.  Recent unforgettable tastes are wasabi cioccolato, black garlic, lavender,  and peanut.  Fatamorgana is the place if you are looking for variety and unique flavors.

Location:  Trastevere with several locations around the Eternal City as well as an outpost in Studio City, Los Angeles.

Three scoops at Corona in Largo Argentina.

A cone from Fatamorgana in Trastevere. Photo by Alexandra Romanoff/Onemoredish.

 

- by Erica Firpo.  Want to know more about who I am and what I do?  Check out my website ericafirpo.com.  And then click over to Twitter and Instagram  for your Rome and Italy fix. . .

Spending Three Perfect Days in Bangkok

This article originally appeared on May 10, 2017 in Forbes Travel.

Bangkok often overwhelms travelers with its traffic, concrete and heat. Not to mention that Thailand’s capital city has 14 million people flocking to its urban center, nearly double the population of New York City.

The secret to navigating Bangkok is to do a little preparation. Follow our three-day itinerary to discover the city in a whole new and calming way.

Day One
After more than 20 straight hours of flying, there are three things you must do once you’ve checked into the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel: First, reserve a massage for that very afternoon in the hotel’s Four-Star spa. Our suggestion is the 90-minute Siam 2482, an indulgent muscle and circulation stimulation completely necessary before running around the city.

Second, be sure to book your space at Morning Wellness for Day 3 (more to come on that). Lastly, head to the pool, a palm-tree-lined sundeck with hints of Bangkok’s unforgettable skyline, where you’re going to soak in some relaxation before your full cultural immersion begins.

You have a date with Smiling Albino. Founded by Canadian-born Thai television celebrity Daniel Fraser in 1999 to showcase and share Thai cultural heritage, Smiling Albino is one of Southeast Asia’s leading luxury and adventure tour companies.

According to Fraser, the best way to understand Bangkok is through its street food scene, and Smiling Albino has planned a six-hour walking tour from Soi Pipat, a road lined with vendors, to Yaowarat, the city’s Chinatown. (Take advantage of this now, as the government announced it will wipe out all street food vendors by the end of 2017.)

You’ll sample yam (a bag filled with spicy Thai salad that’s charmingly nicknamed Plastic Wife), knomjeen (a rice noodle dish with brown curry), the trendy rot-duan (your choice of dried bamboo worms, crickets or grasshoppers), Thai iced tea and more.

The tasting tour will have you scurrying around on foot and by tuk tuk (those Instagram-worthy three-wheel taxi carts) before your journey ends for the evening on a city rooftop watching the glow of Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.

Day Two
You’ve seen the city by night, so now it’s time for Bangkok in Technicolor with a full day of back-to-back excursions. Walk around Ko Rattanakosin, the historic Phra Nakhon district and Bangkok’s ancient city where cylindrical temple stupas dot the landscape. Both Anantara and Smiling Albino can organize dynamic day tours.

Ko Rattanakosin is the city’s culture center of Thai Buddhism, an area concentrated with historic wats (“temples”). Wear lightweight long pants and sandals for visiting sacred sites such as Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and home to the 150-foot-long Reclining Buddha; Wat Phra Kaew, the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand and site of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; and Wat Mahatat, headquarters of Thailand’s largest monastic order, university and meditation center.

In the afternoon, you’ll be floating down the River of Kings with the Klong Guru to explore the western neighborhoods via a network of klongs (“canals”). Traveling by long-tail boat (a long and multicolored canopied canoe-like hull), you’ll peek into life in “Venice of the East,” with floating markets, houses, temples, restaurants and even a traditional puppet show.

Make your way back to the Pathum Wan district for a unique take on traditional Thai cuisine. Take a tip from Fraser and try Issaya Siamese Club, a century-old Thai villa; Namsaah Bottling Trust, a former soda-bottling factory and bank; or Nahm, the poolside restaurant of COMO Metropolitan Bangkok. These three restaurants are pushing the boundaries of local dining with a progressive take on traditional and village recipes.

Enjoy a nightcap 83 stories above the city on the rooftop observation deck of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, Thailand’s tallest building.

Day Three
Rise and shine for a 6 a.m. sunrise wellness session starting with a Buddhist blessing. The Tak Bart Buddhist ritual takes place in Anantara Siam Bangkok’s lobby, a gorgeous gilded space. Every day, at 6:20 a.m., hotel staff and guests present Buddhist monks alms, returned with the monk’s blessing, completing a traditional and peaceful way to start the day.

From the hotel, it’s a short walk to Lumphini Park for a 45-minute Light Energy Session combining yoga and meditation, followed by a picnic brunch — a smorgasbord of quinoa and mixed fruit salad, poached salmon, sandwiches and juices.

Head back to the Bangkok hotel for a 60-minute Chakra Crystal Balancing Therapy to wrap up the wellness session.

After you’ve found your center, you’re ready to explore the city’s industrial history with a visit to the Jim Thompson House. Thompson, a retired army officer and alleged CIA operative, settled in Bangkok in the late 1940s and built up a silk empire, until his mysterious 1967 disappearance.

His home, a beautiful assemblage of sections from century-old Thai villas, is now a museum showcasing Thompson’s art collection of historical Buddhist statues and traditional Thai paintings.

Onsite is a Jim Thompson store selling beautiful silk clothing, accessories and housewares. The surrounding neighborhood is also home to local Bangkok silk weavers and dyers, whose studios and laboratories can be visited.

Chakras balanced and perfectly coordinated with a Jim Thompson silk scarf, head back to the Anantara Siam Bangkok for your last pad Thai at Spice Market, the hotel’s signature restaurant.

Destination: Modena

Years ago, all it took was a simple a few tortellini in brodo to catapult me into the Cult of Culinaria that is Emilia Romagna, Italy's northeastern region and the country's bread basket.  After my first taste, I fell hard into fully warranted idolatry of Emilia Romagna and its regional dishes. I became more than convert, more than one of the fervent masses, I had a calling to which I became a self-proclaimed gastronomic preacher on mission to bring the masses to the Temple of Taste.  Conversion is simple enough when your pantheon of gods includes Parmigiano, Prosciutto and Balsamico, and continual repetition of the words tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne, cappelletti is your daily prayer.  But I quickly found out that for all those years I've been waxing poetic on Emilia Romagna,  Darius, partner in life and travel, has only been to the region for archaeological day trips to Ravenna and Bologna.  It was time for a drive.

Roma-Modena is an easy trip.  By rail, it's approximately three hours - two hours and change on a high speed train, switching to a 25-minute regional train at Bologna Centrale.  By car is a different journey, a somewhat scenic four hours and more sprawl up the A1 autostrada, and we choose a morning drive to avoid Modena's notorious nebbia, a thick fog that practically hides the city from view. 

There is nothing remarkable about Modena upon first arriving at the edge of town, after passing through flat plains of farms and factories.  Just another one of Italy's city-towns - modern streets feeding to medieval center,  a bit of old and and a bit of new.    A former Roman outpost, a fortified medieval town, a contemporary city,  Modena is the font of the world's best balsamic vinegar and the driving force behind Italy's luxury automotive industry- both of which require generational artistry. Like many Italian towns, there are mom-and-pop shops, large chains, art galleries, churches, cute scooters, hand-crafted bicycles and well-dressed residents but it the rhythm and pace that sets Modena apart from the rest -  an easy cadence where every thing, old and new, flows together harmoniously like an old Beatles song and fits together like a Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle. 

Where to go and What to do:  I started a list and I realized that aside from eating, my other suggestion is simply being.  Modena is a living, breathing city, far from the open-air museum of Rome and Florence.  It is meant to be lived, and by all means walked.  A pastiche of history from pre-antiquity to tomorrow is on every path.  Walk on the Via Aemilia, the ancient Roman road that runs from Rimini to Piacenza and bisects Modena at its very center-  the Modena Cathedral, and then really take a look at the bas relief on the church's structural walls- especially a gothic arch entrance near the bell tower where the months are medievally depicted as the wine making process.   Walk some more:  Modena is one of the nook-and-cranny cities with beautiful shops and hidden curiosities like the small lingerie/karoake bar.   Grab a map (physical or virtual) and make your own walking tour.   Bike: as just one city in the pianura padana (regional plains), Modena is flat, which means it is choc-a-bloc with cyclists and places to cycle to and from whether following those monumental walls, slowly pedaling around the historic center or circumnavigating the entire city as a whole.  Finally, drive - the charming team at I Love Maranello will bring a Ferrari to your front door for a test drive around the area, or else, stay in the passenger seat and enjoy a little Enzo double feature at Modena's Museo Ferrari, and Maranello's Ferrari Museum and FactoryFor those looking for the kind of culture you can bottle up, I suggest booking a tour of the acetaia, the family-run balsamic vinegar makers where you'll learn the decades long process and find out how balsamic vinegar can make or break family relationships.

Where We Ate:   Even though every where you eat in Modena is amazing, it pays to have friends that live there, and if I didn’t, I’d pay for a Modenese to be my friend just for the day because once you know one Modenese, you’re guaranteed the best tortellini in the city- and it will never be the same place.  NB:  we did not dine at Italy's Numero Uno Osteria Francescana (been there, loved it).  If you can get a reservation, go.

We found the t-spot (t for tortellini, I'm funny) at L'Incontro, a pizzeria in nearby Maranello recommend by our dear Silvana who insists that owner Erica makes the best tortellini in town.  I know what you are thinking- a pizzeria?  True tortellini lovers will know that it's not about where you eat the tortellini but the only the tortellini you eat and Erica did not disappoint: her tortellini in brodo was off the charts- soothing and delicious.  Bonus points for location- the non-description pizzeria is via Dino Ferrari, across the street from the Ferrari high school and down the street from the factory so when you’re sitting window at a L’Incontro table, expect to spot a Dino or California cruising by.

Silvana also made sure we vacuum-packed up a few kili of parmesan cheese from Belli Formaggi & Salumi, a family-owned delicatessen in Maranello.   One of my favorite kinds of investigative research into a new culture is via the local deli, and Belli did not disappoint.  Silvana and I chatted up signore, while discussing digesting techniques.  Signor Belli had me taste what I think were deep-fried porchetta rinds- my latest addiction, and I purchased two small bottles of his family's 35-year-old balsamic vinegar- asking price 55 euro.

Back in Modena, our daytime focus was Mercato Albinellilocated smack in the center of the city - in other words, the perfect snack point whilst checking out the town.  The ace up my sleeve is my friend Lara, author, art collector, and long time Modena resident whose husband just so happens to be Bottura.  Lara told us to get there early and beeline for frittelle di bacalà, Modena’s version of deep-fried codfish seasoned with oregano and garlic.  We ate that and more- the historic market has everything, including an incredible fried chicken. Tip:  go to the ATM in advance.

I was insistent on having dinner at Franceschetta 58, Osteria Francescana's little cousin and chef Massimo Bottura's pet project.  And I am glad we did.  Franceschetta 58 is the opposite of the Italian restaurant stereotype.  In a former mechanic shop, Franceschetta is a cool slip of a spot - a long room with black tables, putty colored walls, ceiling to floor windows, and a bit of mismatched dishes on the walls. Everyone in the room is either a Bottura friend or a fan, so the vibe was energetic and fun.  The kitchen ishelmed by Bernardo, a Roman-born, Francescana-trained chef, who cooks up monthly changes dishes with Bottura inspirations.  The best way I can describe the menu is experimental Italian tapas where tradition and taste duke it out in your mouth.  We went à la carte and tried everything on the menu including the creamed cod, the low-cooked egg with black truffle, anEmilia burger (Bottura's signature hamburger and song to his homeland), and those tradition-turning piadine with what may have been a bit of kimchi.


On our way out of Modena, as per Lara, we stopped at Generi Alimentari Da Panino, a small stand-up sandwich joint around the corner from Osteria Francescana.  Da Panino is the edible baby of Francescana’s sommelier Beppe Palmieri.  For seven euro you can anyone of seven hand-crafted sandwiches created by Palmieri and chef Cristian Lo Russo. We had the saltimbocca alla modenese with chicken, prosciutto cotto and a parmesan salsa, and a beef tartare, plus we took a bacala, boiled potato and herb sandwich for the road.   Bonus points for the cute paper placemats and the artisanal carbonated drinks from Galvani.

Franceschetta's low-cooked egg

Where We Slept: Stella21, an artists’ loft located within the medieval fortication walls of Modena, and conveniently located just two doors down and across the from Osteria Francescana, Italy’s restaurant Numero Uno. In fact, if you hang out on the street late nights, you may just catch a glimpse of Massimo & Co.  Why I loved the apartment? Aside from location, the attic apartment is a Fabergè egg for art and design lovers.  The apartment is lined with art books, and decorated with art piece furniture like my favorite Eames lounge and ottoman, as well as original paintings and prints, all carefully culled by owner Francesca, a restoration artist.  Her open-plan kitchen is mod Italian with a Nespresso and a mini-cabinet of curiosity stocked with artisanal balsamic vinegar.  The bedroom has an Italianized shikibuton, a comfortable futon/floating bed, and full bathroom. I could have stayed inside at Stella21 all day and night.  My favorite hideaway is the apartment’s tower annex (excellent spot to hide children or annoying friends) and its view of the rooftops… and fog … of Modena.

 

Trippa, Milan's Other Last Supper

Photo: Paolo Zuf

There are restaurants and then there are Restaurants, a food sanctuary that says Home, and from that very first bite convinces you to drop everything in your life just for an opportunity to bus tables so that you can hang out in the kitchen.  This is the kind of place that you keep secret for as long possible, making friends vow to never reveal any details and praying to yourself that you never mention the name in your sleep.  But I think it's time I let you in on my little secret since Italian food writers have been scribbling up a storm about it - -  Trippa, Milan's other Last Supper

Photo: Paolo Zuf

Familiar, nostalgic and beckoning, Trippa is designed like an old school trattoria, a single and clamorous room of vintage-inspired wooden tables and chairs, with authentic vintage lamps, fans, and posters.  The room is enveloped in a gorgeous mustard color that I later find out is "Milan tram yellow", as in the city's beautiful (and refurbished )1930s trams.  The vibe is chatterbox hang out.  Everyone knows everyone else, and are constantly playing table hopscotch, while owner and chef Diego Rossi holds the floor both conceptually and gastronomically.

Photo: Paolo Zuff

I stumbled across Trippa thanks to my friend Sara*, an intrepid food and travel writer.  Sara knows where to eat, so the table's always up to her which is probably why she is co-founder and bosslady ofSauce Milan, the site for Milan's food and restaurant scene.  Of course, Sara was spot on.  Trippa was perfect - for me and for the evening, which initially began with a viewing of the Last Supper.   Next thing I know, a kerchiefed Diego is bombarding me, Sara, Laura and Darius with vegetables-  crunchy white turnips (were they slightly breaded?), grilled raddichio with roe, a leek panella, fried artichoke and a trio platter where all I remember is the broccolo. And that was just the beginning.  We had a fabulous fassona tartar, a valorous vitello tonnato (perhaps the very best I have ever had), and a perfect grilled polpo.  It was almost as if I needed nothing more until the bone was brought out.

Marrow on the half bone.  I could write sonnets to this salty masterpiece that we spread over warm bread.

Beatific. Gastro-terrific.  Mind-blowing, belly showing.  A half-bone beat with a salty treat. Bone marrow, I'm yours.

Life Imitates Art.  That's the only thing I was thinking about it as I looked across the table at Sara (left), Diego and Laura, my culinary trinity, who brought me and Darius from enamoured to enlightened.  Trippa was a masterpiece, and then I noticed that they were too.  Just like Da Vinci's fresco.  Nothing is a coincidence.

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Via Giorgio Vasari 3

Reservations only 327 668 7908

Oh me, oh my, Okonomiyaki - Eating in Japan

O-ko-no-mi-ya-ki: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of six steps down the palate... O. Ko. No. Mee. Ya. Kee.

I may not be Nabakov, but okonomiyaki is definitely my Lolita, my gastronomical catnip, my culinary raison d'etre.  I'd  cross the country for a seat at an okonomiyaki-ya.  Just the name alone makes me smile.  Those syncopated six syllables drum the perfect rhythm for a dish I'd consider the best comfort food I've ever eaten.  And in one week, I ate it 9 times.  Dinner and Lunch. Lunch. Dinner. Lunch and Dinner. Lunch and Dinner and Dinner.  Nope, I was never bored because every single time, that savoury pancake (to conceptualize it for the Western mind) was a completely new creation.

There is nothing pretty about okonomikyaki. And it's not meant to be.  It is an "everything-but-the-kitchen sink" dish of flour batter , cabbage, pork, egg, bean sprouts and noodles, plus whatever else you choose-- depending on where you are from when in Japan, or what you like.  It's like the Wild West of recipes with a murky backstory, quick draws and no rules.

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Getting my okonomiyaki on - Kansai-style: Okonomiyaki is DIY at its very finest.  Personally, I think it should be a first date meal beause it is essentially a personality assessment.  The dish is hands out, which means cell phones down.  Within five minutes you'll figure out who is collaborative, encouraging, adventuresome and a food-dynamo or perfectionist, selfish and all around food afraid.

Where:  My first and favorite is Poppoya in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture.  Vibe is charming, rustic, no frills and beer or umeshu (plum wine).  Seating is bar side and table.

MORE:  My Food Traveller piece on okonomiyaki for The Guardian, July 2016

Starring roll: high art paninis in a Roman cafe

This article originally appeared in The Guardian, February 2016.

Fill me in … Roscioli’s panino menu has set the Roman cafe apart from the crowd

Fill me in … Roscioli’s panino menu has set the Roman cafe apart from the crowd

Brothers Pierluigi and Alessandro have sliced their way to glory with their sandwiches at their latest eatery, the Roscioli cafe

 

Just a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori in central Rome, the Roscioli cafe, the latest in the Roscioli empire, ups the ante with a new take on the traditional Roman cafe, and its reinvention of the panino – the humble sandwich.

Down the street from its sister shops – Roscioli Salumeria, a delicatessen/restaurant, and the Antico Forno bakery – the cafe has high ceilings and is decorated in muted colours, more art gallery than old-school cafe. The counter is laid with Roman pastries and sandwiches – maritozzi (cream-filled sweet buns), Mont Blanc meringues, traditional triangular tramezzini and ovalini, small oval sandwiches filled with rocket and tuna, or artichokes and salmon.

 

 

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The Roscioli cafe is the latest addition to a mini chain

Roscioli serves cappuccino, caffè corretto and all other coffee incarnations. Though pricier than in the average Roman bar – espresso €1.50, cappuccino €2.25 – the coffee is expertly made by Roscioli’s veteran team. There’s a small, cave-like back room with tables, where the owners host V60 coffee tastings (a manual coffee-making method using a cone-shaped glass filter and 100% arabica grinds), wine tastings and aperitivi.

But it’s the sandwich menu that sets Roscioli apart. Brothers Pierluigi and Alessandro say they set out to create the very best. The Club is a triple-layer monument of Roscioli’s wholewheat bread, grilled guanciale (cured pork cheek, a bit like fat bacon), Sicilian tomato and a free-range fried egg. The Francesina is filled with succulent slow-roasted breast of veal and mustard mayonnaise, and the Fritcassè is a playful homage to Rome’s fried cod. It’s art, stuffed into a bread roll.

Piazza Cairoli 16, facebook.com/Rosciolicaffe

Hot Pockets: David Posey, A Breakout Chicago Chef Declares His Love for Italy

Tasting the risotto
Tasting the risotto

Hot Pockets is a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications.  My interview with James Beard Rising Star David Posey originally appeared in Forbes Travel on December 2, 2014: A Breakout Chicago Chef Declares His Love for Italy

Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts recently decided it was time to bring on five new signature dishes to its iconic menu of recipes that already included delectable standards such as eggs Benedict, red velvet cake, Thousand Island dressing and the eponymous Waldorf salad.

Through exciting (and oftentimes unpredictable) pairings of Waldorf chefs from five different hotels in Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, La Quinta (California) and Shanghai and a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Taste of Waldorf Astoria was born, and so were unique signature dishes that will hopefully be celebrated on Waldorf menus around the world.

At the Rome Cavalieri encounter in October, its veteran toque Heinz Beck met with Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee David Posey, who’s also the former chef de cuisine for the Windy City’s beloved Blackbird, for five intense days of tastings, testing and touring the Eternal City. The result? Posey and Beck’s redefinition of risotto. We caught up with Posey to talk about visiting Rome for the first time, eating around Chicago and venturing out on his own in 2015.

What can you tell us about the risotto that you helped to create? The rice risotto that Heinz and I made is something that I’ve been playing with. It’s based on the idea for a dish I had in Paris and a technique I read in a cookbook. Heinz and I worked on the dish for a few days to really refine it and hone the flavors. I really enjoyed working with Heinz. And with the celery root risotto, both of our culinary voices are heard. There is modern technique, which I love, then Italian flavors and sensibilities that Heinz is know for.

Beck Posey 2
Beck Posey 2

What do you like about Rome? Rome reminded me of my hometown of Los Angeles, with the amazing climate and busy city life but with a more relaxed attitude.

What is iconic Rome to you? The icons of Rome would have to be the general ancientness of the city. Just walking around, passing a 2,000-year-old building, then a 700-year-old statue, or, in the evening, seeing people still living in 500-year-old houses.

What is an iconic Rome taste? Rigatoni with amatriciana [a spicy red sauce with guanciale] and cacio e pepe [pasta with cheese and pepper] were two great pasta dishes that I tried, which are special to Rome. My favorite bite that I had, though, was mortadella on focaccia, which Heinz Beck showed me when we went to lunch in an amazing little enoteca.

Where did you eat in Rome and what did you think? I didn’t get to eat out as much I liked, but the meals I had were great. Heinz took me to Roscioli, where we had a great pizza rossa [with only red sauce], pastas and salumis. Then I was lucky enough to eat at La Pergola, which is Heinz’s amazing three-Michelin-starred restaurant, twice. His pastas, and minimal use of fat or dairy, really blew me away.

What is iconic Chicago? Iconic Chicago, for me, is a city of progression. We have the country’s first skyscraper, then we built the country’s tallest skyscraper. The World’s Fair was in Chicago for a while, where anything groundbreaking at the time took place. With that progression, our city burnt down, so we got to build it all over again.

What is an iconic Chicago taste? Chicago has quite a few well-known foods, the most known being the Chicago dog and deep-dish pizza.

Favorite places to grab a coffee or snack? There are a few favorites of mine here in Chicago. For coffee, I love Bow Truss, which is a new roaster in the city. I love Portillo’s for Chicago dogs and Au Cheval for cheeseburgers.

What are your plans for 2015? My wife, Anna, and I are working on opening a restaurant in Chicago. It will be modern farm-to-table food at an affordable price point, similar to the new bistro style of restaurants opening in Paris.

Sign of the Times: An Eclair

 

This is a sign. More like a sign of the times.  Back in the day, I used to wander around Rome in search of a chocolate eclair.  It was my thing.  Or more like a self-placed, huge-ass chip on my shoulder.

Just to clarify: I knew I wasn't in France, and as a rule of thumb, I don't believe in nutella, so don't even attempt to assuage me with cornetti al cioccolato aka nutella.  I just wanted an eclair once in a while and I went looking for them.

So yeah, I was that girl who paid the entrance fee to Villa Medici just to go to the caffe (no eclairs).  And I hung out around Palazzo Farnese to follow around the Ambassador de France's chef. (He makes his own.)  No dice.  There were no eclairs in Rome, until last Sunday.

Caffeteria, Piazza Sant'Eustachio

Pasticerre: Michela, whose eclair artistry came from a few years in London at the Ritz and Bulgari Hotel.

 

The introduction of the eclair to Rome's sweet scene is a far better harbinger of things to come than the cupcake craze of a few years back, an era in which quicky/crappy gelaterie and ersatz paninoteche flooded the streets of the centro storico and all we could look forward to was the gelato popsicle.  That craze meant less quality across the spectrum-  from food to clothing to exhibition curation.  I spent more time shaking my head at all the black-and-white tiled paninoteche and the Brandy Melvilles.  To flip a Dickens quote, it was the worst of times, it is the best of times.

I am not going to argue that lackluster has died out, but I've noticed there is more of an investment in the recent openings in the center.  It started with some restaurant renovations and has traveled all the way to art, most notably with Lorcan O'neil moving to the Campo de' Fiori area.  It's almost as if there is a return to old school-- by old school, I mean what was once is now.  And before you get all up in my face about the real Rome,  take a 7:45am walk with me around the center.

Back to Caffetteria, also known as that other caffe in Piazza Sant'Eustachio  which the Professor fondly remembers for its ceiling mirror, is a reboot on the old-school Roman caffè~ i.e. gorgeous bar, beautiful pastries, velvet indoor chairs, painted wall-paper, and great outdoor seating.  Menu is pretty good too~ 2,70 euro for a cappuccino al tavolo ain't too shappy when it ain't shabby.