Touring Rome and Tuscany Like a Local

On my trip to Italy, I experienced a wedding in Rome, a gelato tour, great restaurants, a family-cooked meal and a Tuscan wine tour.

Ciao Italia. It means hello and goodbye. That makes me feel better because it means I never really have to say goodbye.

I just came back from a trip through Italy for my best guy friend’s wedding in Rome. My friend grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Syracuse University (where I met him) and he now lives in Switzerland, where he fell in love with his Italian bride. She is from Rome, so that’s why the extravaganza took place there. About fifteen of our college friends flew to Europe for the ultimate destination wedding.

Italian weddings are very different compared to most American weddings. There are no multiple matching bridesmaids or groomsmen, just witnesses; two for the bride, two for the groom. Receptions are more about the food than the dancing, and the focus is on the religious church ceremony. I stood up for the groom as one of his witnesses inside the church, San Pietro in Montorio, overlooking all of Rome. All I had to do was make sure my shoulders were covered inside the church and stand behind the couple at the altar and then sign their marriage certificate. It was the easiest bridal party experience ever.

After the traditional ninety-minute Catholic service—fit for a future king and queen and spoken mostly in Italian —we boarded a bus and headed outside the main city to Spizzichina Castle for the reception. But we had a little trouble getting there, as our bus would not fit down Rome’s tiny side streets. Parked cars blocked the way, and we were stuck in the middle of the road as motorists beeped at us to move, and then they tried to navigate around the barricade. But there was nowhere for them to go. In the end, we needed a police escort to divert traffic so that we could travel on the opposite side of another road to get to where we needed to be.

Once we arrived safely an hour later, the reception kicked off with champagne and sangria and dishes of fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, salumi, lightly battered vegetables and more. The medieval castle is a stone estate covered by ivy that was built using fragments of Roman monuments. The wedding dinner that followed involved three more courses paired with different wines. Dishes included champagne risotto, handmade goat cheese ravioli, lemon sorbet to cleanse the palette, then leg of veal with potatoes, carrot and zucchini pastry and baby tomatoes stuffed with eggplant. Then we loaded up our plates at the dessert stations with multiple gelato flavors, cake and frozen desserts. Normally, Italian weddings are all about the food, and they do not include dancing. But for this particular wedding—because the groom is a dancing fool—they arranged for a deejay. The groom even sang an off-key version of "Tu Vuo' Fa L'Americano," from The Talented Mr. Ripley to his bride, a moment that officially marked his induction into the Italian family.

During our three-day visit to Rome, we stopped at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City where we were lucky enough to hear the Pope speak to a crowd of thousands. We explored the Borghese Gallery, enjoyed a detailed tour inside the Coliseum, and we simply soaked up the city like everyday people. We made up our own gelato tour; stops included the Old Bridge Gelateria (Gelateria Mereu Gianluciano) near the Vatican for Nutella gelato, Tazzo d' Oro for granita (Italian frozen coffee with whipped cream), and Giolitti near the Pantheon, where we raved about the limoncello and tiramisu flavors.

The restaurants I enjoyed most included La Carbonara, known, of course, for its creamy bacon-bedecked carbonara, but I tried the handmade linguine with truffles and Portobello mushrooms. I promised myself not to leave Italy without indulging in truffles (these were so fragrant I could breathe them in), and the pasta's uneven texture was the type I expected to eat while in Italy. You can sign your name on the walls to mark your visit to this small place, guarded by a nonna. Another memorable spot is off-the-beaten-path Taverna Romano, a local haunt located a few blocks away from the Colisieum. It's a bit of a haul to get there, but once you see all the Italian-speaking locals out in the courtyard, you'll realize it's worth the walk. There, we shared the carbonara, a dish of meatballs and homemade pasta with cacao y pepe (simple olive oil, pepper and pecorino cheese). The waiter, Marco, spoke English and sat down at our table to help us choose what to eat from the menu. We were glad we listened.

After Rome, a group of nine of us traveled to Tuscany. We rented part of the Villa Il Paradisino, outside Florence in a small town called Sesto Fiorentino, where we could all stay together for an affordable price. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere; a fifteen-minute walk to the train, and then a fifteen-minute ride into Florence from the villa, but it allowed us to experience Tuscany like a local. Our living quarters had three bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room and a beautiful stone outdoor courtyard with a table and chairs shaded by an orange tree. The villa has been owned by the same family since 1839, and the actual building and grounds date back to the Fifteenth Century. One of the family’s prized possessions is a framed document, signed by Napoleon Bonaparte, on display inside the main estate.

The villa grounds include five hectares of land that encompass gardens, grape vines and lemon, orange and olive trees, some that date back 400 years. They make all of their wine and olive oil on site. A barnyard with chickens and ducks (and one loud rooster!) provides fresh eggs (and yes, meat, too). The family also has two friendly dogs that love to hang out with the guests in the gardens, though they never impose.

The family offers a five-course authentic Italian dinner for guests (additional charge) served in the main estate of their home. This was a highlight for our group, as we chose our menu from a six-page document, and they based our meal on what was in season at the moment; tomatoes, zucchini, artichokes.  We dined at a table for ten in their heirloom-filled home surrounded by antiques that are hundreds of years old. Each window framed a painting-worthy view of the villa grounds. As each course was served—salad with a lemon-olive oil vinaigrette, bruschetta, fried artichokes, duck lasagna, pork tenderloin in a wine sauce and a chocolate cake with fresh berries—the family explained each course and where the ingredients came from. For the duck lasagna, that morning, they hand-rolled the pasta sheets, and chose a duck from the barnyard for our feast.

Another favorite part of the trip included a wine tour through Tuscany. My two friends had previously toured the Napa Valley, and their California tour guide recommended Tuscan Trails for our Italian adventure. We chose to focus on the Montalcino region, where we visited three wineries, including Casanova di Neri, Castello Romitorio and Collemattoni that all produce two unique types of red wine, Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello.

The tour was lead by Todd Bolton, an American who now lives in Florence with his wife. He picked us up at the villa in a van at 7:30 a.m. and brought us to all of the wineries, while explaining the importance of Sangiovese grapes when making Brunello wines. The wine must be made with this particular grape and aged for four years in specific oak barrels, in order to be called Brunello. My favorite winery was Castello Romitorio, which is a Twelfth Century fortress owned by artist Sandro Chia, who was friends with Andy Warhol. He painted a fresco inside a New York restaurant and used some of the money to buy and restore the medieval castle where he lives today. There are artistic touches all over the grounds, including sculptures around the buildings and paintings on walls, and each bottle of wine is labeled with a print of one of his works. Our guide, Daniele D’Antoni, opened a  Brunello reserve for us during the tasting, and he taught us how to really enjoy the wine. Sip it slowly, then hold it in your mouth and swish it around to feel the tingle on your gums that's produced by good grapes. It’s a very smooth red wine that we savored. I also enjoyed an olive oil tasting at Collemattoni, where it was served in a glass. The tour guide poured each of us a taste, and then suggested we hold it on our tongue and suck in air in between our teeth, to really feel the spiciness and bite produced by good olive oil.

The day also included a stop for an authentic lunch at Il Leccio in the small hillside town of Montalcino. We sat outside on the patio and enjoyed sharing large platters of farm fresh eggs dolloped with pesto, lightly battered zucchini fries, a gigantic asparagus omelet, and a traditional Tuscan tomato bread soup made with fresh tomatoes, basil and olive oil–paired with ample carafes of house wine. After that, we walked around Montalcino and enjoyed shopping for more bottles of wine, olive oil and cutting boards made from olive trees. Once the twelve-hour day was complete, we headed back to the bus, and zonked out on the ride home.

It was a wonderful trip, and we hope to have another friends reunion there in ten years. Ciao Italia!

Photos by Patrick Caliguiri, Sonja Olson and Jamie Coelho.