Cathy's Garden Fresh Cooking Blog



Wondering where I have been the last couple of weeks? Italy! More specifically Central Tuscany 30 minutes south of Florence or Firenze as it’s called in Italy. A dream trip! We had enough air miles to fly there and we stayed 12 days. How do I tell you in a nutshell how our 12 day trip was? I can’t. I can talk about the bathroom, toilettes and water closets for a half hour! Our first time over to Europe and everything was a new experience, I felt like a child where everything in my world was new, including the language. It took us a couple of days to get over the jet lag and learn a few customs of the country. If you plan to go I recommend that you learn some Italian! People that have been there before told us everyone speaks English, especially the younger generation. Not true. We ran into two people that spoke very good English and a handful that spoke decent English, but most spoke bits of English with hand gestures. They would say, “English not so good” and I would reply, “My Italian not so good”. With the Italian I learned 2 weeks prior to going and some hand gestures it was fine. Everyone was helpful and patient with us, but I would have loved to have a conversation and hear their life story. Note to self, learn Italian, it is a beautiful language.

Italians love their country, preserve their history and are very passionate about their food. You can hear it in their voice; see it in their face and watch their eyes dance with pride. They want to share all of this with you, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

We had a good flight and on the last leg from Munich to Florence our seats were split up. I sat next to a man traveling from Canada to his Italian farm which he was restoring. It was time to harvest the olives on his land (what an interesting process) and I would have loved to participate. We had a wonderful conversation and he gave me many tips and recommended sites to visit during our stay. He did tell me to try Olio de nuevel, which means new (just pressed) olive oil, which I’m sad to say I never got to try. All of the places I asked weren’t picking for a couple more weeks. We finally arrived in Italy after 16 hours of travel. After we completed our lost luggage claim and picked up our rental car we were starving. I read that most restaurants close in the afternoon so we asked the rental car agent if anything was open to get something to eat. He told us about a service station nearby (you know, where you get gas for your car). Inside they had a coffee bar, some convenience items and seating for about 20 people (not your average American gas station). We had a bean, vegetable and Arborio rice soup; Chicken Cacciatore and a Salad with Bibb lettuces, radicchio and shrimp. All made from scratch and delicious. Our first meal in Italy was at a “gas station” and we were not disappointed with the food!

We entered the address for Villa Le Torri in Montespertoli into the GPS ( and made it there just fine. The roads are narrow, Chianti is all hills, road signs are difficult to follow if they exist and a GPS is essential. While we didn’t like that our TomTom GPS maps were not up to date (rental car issue most likely) we would have been completely lost without it.

Our Villa was just perfect! The grounds were beautiful with pots of flowers, manicured greens, olive groves, hidden gardens, a stone fireplace and much more. Gabry was an excellent host. He welcomed us and told us excitedly about the welcome reception at 7:30 that evening. We wouldn’t miss it. Gabry, his mother, father and wife prepare this wonderful spread. There were 20 of us gathered in a warm and cozy room. We quickly made friends with guests from Montana, Vermont, California, Toronto, Australia and Germany. We drank the homemade wine and feasted on two tables full of local food, such as: homemade salami and prosciutto (many Italians make their own salami and prosciutto), Tuscan white beans, tomato cheese gratin, cabbage and bacon, crostini’s, meat and eggplant meatballs with cheese in the middle, 2 different salads, pizza, pasta, fried zucchini fritters, lemony mashed potato cakes, and more. Then we had some wonderful cake, homemade Vinsanto and cantuccini for dipping. They outdid themselves and I thoroughly enjoyed every single bite! Gabry was great throughout the trip and was there every day to guide you and offer travel suggestions for the day. We relied on him and he always steered us in the right direction, recommending wonderful local places to eat.

Here are a few cites we enjoyed throughout our stay:

San Gimignano, a medieval walled city that retains its old world charm with modern conveniences. We had the best gelato at Gelateria di Piazza, with many gourmet flavors such as Raspberry with Rosemary, Lavender and more.  I enjoyed Chestnut and Nutella. I had wild boar stew for dinner which is a must have if you go.  Wild boar is popular in this region; we had it stewed, in Bolognese, salami etc. The piazzas,  food and views were great.

Florence, or Firenze as it’s called in Italy, is the capital city of the Tuscany region. We toured the Galleria degli Uffizi and The Galleria deli Accademia where Michelangelo’s famous David is displayed. David is a must see and the detail is incredible. Do you love food as much as I do? Go to the Mercato Centrale (Central Market), meats, cheeses, pastas, fruits, vegetables, seafood, breads, pastries and more. I suggest going early in your trip so you can buy a bit of everything and enjoy eating it throughout your stay. For shopping go to Piazza San Lorenzo, this is where the leather markets are with endless stalls of merchandise for you to buy. We ate at Za Za, Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 26r. It was delicious, we started with a trio of soups (great to try the soups of the region), I got stuffed rabbit (more of a terrain or meatloaf, made with ground rabbit, seasoned, then wrapped in a thin fat and maybe some other meat then cooked. I was served a slice) Jim got the Seafood Risotto, lots of seafood and it was delicious. This trattoria has been open for decades. They also sell a cookbook with family recipes written in English that I bought.

Walking around the city is amazing! Everywhere you look there are statues, art and beautiful architecture not to mention the numerous museums and churches. Of course the Dumo, Carrenda is amazing! The detail on the outside of the building is breathtaking! We took lots of pictures and only when we got home and reviewed them could we zoom in on all the detail. There’s more there than the naked eye can see. You have to see it to believe it, the entire city is breathtaking.

To my husband’s delight, gelaterias are everywhere. Some tips to get the good gelato, don’t buy it if it’s bright colored and piled as high as a mountain. How fresh is that? Most likely it’s not made daily. Look at the color; it should be a natural color. For instance, the fruit of a banana is not bright yellow, it’s creamy in color. Be adventures and try as many flavors as you can. Some of the flavors we tasted, Chestnut, Nutella, Boci, Pistachio, Hazelnut, Dark Chocolate, Orange, Melon, Banana, Chocolate chip and many more. Tip, if 2 scoops cost as much as a single, get one flavor and enjoy it before it melts and then go back for the other.

Siena is the capital city of the province of, you guessed it, Siena. I read about a Deli, Morbidi Deli on Via Banchici Sopra Street and we actually found it! Upon entry you see a great Italian deli with all the meat and cheeses, but down a spiral staircase to your right is an old brick and stone cellar that serves a lunch buffet. It was great! There were platters of antipasti with wonderful deli meats (even headcheese) along with lots of different salads, pasta, risotto, breads and desserts. It was delicious, try it all. Mostly local business people dining alongside us.

Perugia is the capital city of the region of Umbria. It’s also the host city for the Euro World Chocolate Festival which just so happened to be going on while we were there. I loved the old world city. I tasted lots of chocolate! I also tried dark chocolate with cinnamon bark slivered on top, when chewed together it had a great cinnamon taste. We have always loved Bacci chocolate and it’s made in Perugia so you can’t pass that up. Hazelnut is the nut of choice there and Nutella is pretty popular. In fact, Italians love their Nutella and several booths serve it warm in a cup to eat with a spoon. I also tried a hot chocolate mixture in a little espresso cup which surprisingly turned out to be hot chocolate pudding. There are several roasted chestnut street vendors around so I bought a bag to enjoy. Eat them while they’re hot, they are not as good cold.

For the most part there isn’t fast food in Italy as we know it and at the festival they had one food vendor. They were making dough from scratch, kneading, tossing, then into machine to roll it out and then it was cut into a circle and finally tossed onto the grill to cook. Then you got to pick your fillings, grilled sausages, meats, grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers and more. The dough melted in your mouth, it was all so fresh and tasted great. The sculptures, fountains, buildings and 360 panoramic view of Perugia are pretty remarkable. The city has to be one of the highest points around because you can see for miles in all directions. This was one of my favorite cities.

Volterra is another city high on a mountaintop with wonderful vistas. It is known for the alabaster mined there. If you read the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer this is the town where her stories are based on. I didn’t see any vampires lurking about but the alabaster and the views were beautiful!

Livorno, this port city on the Tyrrhenian Sea is the capital of the providence of Livorno. The days we had planned to go to the coast were rainy ones. So, we ventured an hour away to the city Livorno, thinking we would beat the rain if we went early. Not so, that day it poured and poured. When the weather is nasty many places don’t open. We called Gabry for a suggestion of where to eat. The place he suggested was also closed due to weather but right around the corner was an open restaurant, the only one we saw driving throughout the city. We had a wonderful local seafood lunch. Mussels stuffed with meat, followed by seafood pasta with a briny, flavorful sauce and the fish of the day which our server said is only from that area (no English word for it). Of course I got it. It was similar to a stew with pieces of fish, cabbage and boiled potatoes. Very good and unlike anything I’ve had before. Once our waitress knew we wanted to try the local fair, she would say, “it was the soul of the city and you won’t have it anywhere else but here”. She was right. Every city the food was different and all delicious. Then from there we drove further north, but it was still raining.

San Miniato is yet another city atop a mountain, but we didn’t see much since it was dark and raining the entire trip there from the coast. I asked Gabry at our villa where we can get a white truffle meal since I knew they were in season and we were in the white truffle area. He guided us to the city of San Miniato where there is a famous truffle restaurant. We had to go. We arrived in the small town around 6:00; we found the restaurant easily, surprise, and saw a few people standing outside. One of the people there knocked on the window and the owner came out and pointed to the sign, he opens at 19:30 (7:30). It was windy and cold but the rain finally stopped. We walked around, another interesting city, and we came upon a church. It was a plain looking stone church. People were going in so I thought we could go to 6 o’clock mass, perfect. It was crowded and absolutely gorgeous inside! The bishop was there, along with numerous other priest, nuns and monks in the crowd. A choir, violins and trumpets were also there in full form celebrating a priest being ordained! What a treasure to witness and take part in. Afterward we headed back to the restaurant. The lights were out and the owner was leaving. He came out speaking in Italian, said no open, continued speaking in Italian and pointing to the sky and said temp. Great. He pointed us to another place to eat just up the hill. They were open, it was warm and she was just writing the menu on the blackboard. The restaurant is called, Piazza Del Popolo Enoteca con Cucina in San Miniato on Piazza del Popolo, 10. She spoke very good English and was so welcoming. She started us out with a white truffle appetizer, seasoned ricotta, with shaved truffles, grilled pumpkin and topped with chestnut cake! It was so good. Then we had the pasta with white truffles, delicious. We followed that with a filet steak topped with shaved white truffles! I finally got to taste fresh truffles and not just the “flavor” of truffles. She was wonderful and chatted with us the whole time. We enjoyed our conversations and getting to know her and her food. Then she brought us out some cookies. It was a stormy day but two awesome meals made our day.

Chianti- Greve region was next. We went to Castello di Verrazzano which is not only a winery but a destination in itself. We had lunch of grilled meats, beans and salad. We did the wine tour, wine tasting, olive oil tasting and finished with a taste of the 12 year old balsamic vinegar. Needless to say, everything was “tasty” and the knowledge of the tour guide was amazing.

Something I never thought would happen on our trip to Italy, food is hard to find. Actually, if you are in the big cities something is always open for the tourists and the food is good, but nothing to brag about. We ate at a couple of those places after getting lost and missing the Italian eating times. Italians eat lunch, then everything closes (even the grocery stores), then the restaurants open around 7:30 pm to as late as opening at 10:00 pm. For us Americans that is a long time between meals, especially when you are walking around admiring a city or museum all day. There are no fast food chains in Italy! Food and Stores are not open 24-7. Maybe that’s something that needs to happen here, to enjoy your food, eat quality food and not eat it on the run.

We went to farmers markets, small meat shops, local markets and we drove 40 minutes to check out one of the large grocery stores (IPERCOOP). You know I have to see how the locales eat and shop. At any vegetable market or in the produce section of the grocery store they have plastic gloves to put on before you touch and pick your produce. The foods of the region that I noticed were white beans, kale, Pecorino cheese, gorgonzola cheese, radicchio, wild boar, rabbit, beef, pork, truffles, olive oil, salami, hazelnuts and chestnuts. One thing we didn’t see in Italy is junk food. There isn’t an isle dedicated to snack food such as corn chips, pretzels, etc, I did see a couple bags of potato chips but they weren’t selling from what I observed.

We had a kitchen and I made breakfast daily a few lunches and a couple of dinners. Here I made a quick pasta, with sausage, wild mushrooms, fresh herbs from the garden (sage, thyme and rosemary) and topped with Pecorino cheese. With a fennel salad on the side. Not bad for a limited kitchen.

I must mention another restaurant, L’Artevino, Via S. Sonnino 28, 50025 Montespertoli. This was close to our villa, a 10 minute drive and a very good restaurant that we visited twice. Once with our friends from the villa, 8 of us and on our last night just the two of us. Of course Gabry gave them a quick call and they said they would be there between 7-7:15. We had wonderful service and exceptional food again, we were the only ones dining in the restaurant, locales eat later, much later. We enjoyed Courgette flowers with grouper cream (stuffed zucchini flowers), Asparagus pudding served with “Pecorino” cheese fondue (a light almost omelet like pudding), Gnocchetti di patate with nettle and seafood (the lightest gnocchi I have ever tasted along with a nice assortment of seafood; shrimp, mussels, clams and razor clams), Risotto with asparagus and crab pulp, Catalan Shrimps and prawns, Rabbit in the pan with onions and peppers (tender and delicious – I had this twice and my husband ordered it on our second visit), Sole roll with asparagus and chive. For desserts we had, Rung of Pious to the cream and chocolate, Cheese mousse with fruit-wood jam and Salami to the chocolate, sauce of Mascarpone. All delicious, remember we ate there twice.

Oh yes, another meal to remember was Wednesday night, was a six course meal that Gabry’s mother prepared, with the help of his father, Gabry and his wife. It was a sit down dinner, all prepared from scratch, utilizing their garden and we were spoiled rotten. I remember it all in great detail but that would be another page of writing. The meal started with wonderful antipasti, pickled veggies, bread, followed by ravioli with butter sage sauce, followed by lasagna and all served with their wonderful homemade wine. Next the meat course, with three grilled meats, and the side dishes that keep coming out of the kitchen. Just when we thought that was the last one, here he came with two more platters! My favorite side dish was the baked fennel. So full, so good. Then he brought Tiramisu for dessert, who doesn’t like that? Then came the Vinsanto and the biscotti (well that’s what we call them). Finally, he brought Grappa and his homemade Limoncello! We started at 7:30 and left at 12:00! Eating and drinking the whole time with our new friends and our family for the week.

Our trip was amazing and we lived among the locales. Was I ready to come home? No. I was ready to see more of Italy. This was our first taste of Italy and not our last. I always said my dream trip would be to go to Italy with Mario Batali as our tour guide. The offer still stands Mario, if you would like to show us more of Italy we are ready when you are. Mario is an excellent chef who is knowledgeable about Italy and its food origins which would make a trip to Italy even more amazing. Another highlight of the trip was the all the people we meet and the friends we made from all over the world. What a wonderful gift of newly made friends that I look forward to remaining in touch with. I did meet a family from the South East portion of Italy on our flight back home; I may have to pay them a visit. Ciao!

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