William and I have talked about going to Italy for years. He’s been to Europe many times before, but I’ve never had the chance. So, what better excuse than to go for our first marriage anniversary?
We left Wednesday afternoon. It was a relatively short flight at only 9 hours to Amsterdam, where we caught a 2-hour connecting flight to Rome. You might remember our last trip was a mileage run to Hong Kong. Well this is why. William’s travel hacking hobby gave us free roundtrip business class upgrades for our flights (my preferred way to travel). The long flight was wonderful, business class is really the best way to go. We flew on one of KLM’s newest planes, the 787 Dreamliner. It was perfect. Lay-flat beds, 3-course meal, lots of wine, big tv screen with lots of good movies, you get the idea. I’m spoiled.
We landed in Rome late Thursday afternoon and took a train directly from the airport to get into the city. An hour later, we were dropping our bags off at our airbnb and heading out for the evening. Our first stop in Italy? Pizza.
Now for those of you who don’t know me, I’m gluten free and dairy free. Gluten is not by choice, I have celiac disease, and about 5 years ago dairy decided that it didn’t want to agree with my body anymore. So you might be wondering why a gluten and dairy free person decided to go to Italy and make pizza their first destination? Well, Italy has become known for having amazing gluten free options, which we were excited to check out. I’ve also been spending a lot of time trying to rebuild my gut and heal my body over the past few years and guess what? It’s working! I’ll never be able to eat gluten, but I can now eat some dairy and oh my, just in time, because cheese in Italy is just perfect.
Our first dinner was at Voglia di Pizza. They had an entirely gluten free menu and knew exactly what they were doing. We started off with ham and tomato bruschetta. The gf bread was crispy and soaked in olive oil. Oh my gosh, the olive oil in Italy… forget the wine, give me all the olive oil. We ordered two different pizzas, because why not? They were a bit on the greasy side, but the crust and flavor were good. The cheesecake… that was the winner. It was literally the best cheesecake I’ve ever had in my life. It was light and fluffy with an incredible cheese flavor, nothing like a typical American cheesecake.
For breakfast, we heated up our leftover pizza from the night before. I’ve never had pizza for breakfast, it’s great! We tried airbnb experiences for the first time and booked a Street Art Tour. I love street art, especially when traveling. Every city is unique since street art is often an expression of the artist’s views or beliefs. It was fascinating getting to learn about some of the local pieces and the meaning behind them.
If you’ve ever been to Rome, you’ve likely seen these water fountains everywhere. They’re called “Nasoni” which translates to “big nose” based on their design. There are 2,500 all over Rome and they pump out continuous, cold, clean (safe), and free drinking water. Cool fact – the water comes directly from a nearby mountain and they use an original aqueduct! How cool is that?!
After the tour we stopped by Grom for gelato and got chocolate and pistachio. The pistachio was heavenly! I had to restrain myself since I was still trying to take it easy on dairy. We learned some very important tips for finding good gelato. First, the gelato should never be mounded (which you see a LOT of). True gelato has less fat than regular ice cream and is served at a slightly higher temperature, which enhances the flavor, but also doesn’t allow for it to be mounded. It should be flat in metal containers. Our local guide in Florence (who I’ll tell you about later) pointed to the gelato mounds and said: “I don’t know what they put in those, I think it must be plastic!” Second pro-tip – look at the pistachio. Pistachio shouldn’t be bright green, that’s unnatural. It should be an ugly greenish brown. If you can check off both of those boxes, you’ve probably found a legit place. Or just go to Grom. Grom’s amazing.
We had lunch at La Pasticciera, a gluten free bakery. They had amazing focaccia and I discovered just how much William loves cannoli.
I’ve always wanted to see the Colosseum – Roman history is so fascinating to me. The things they created with their level of knowledge and technology is incredible. We got tickets in advance so we didn’t have to wait in line (which saved us at least an hour of standing in the sun). We chose the audio tour, it was nice having some information while walking around at our own pace. (Pro-tip: bring your own earbuds so you aren’t holding the old school zune up to your face to listen to it like a fool and bothering everyone around you.)
We had some time before dinner so we decided to go to Basilica San Clemente. Two of our friends had told us about this church. When you walk in, it looks like a normal, yet beautiful church. The cool part is that they started excavating underneath it and discovered another church below it, which you can walk down into. The really fascinating part is that they then discovered another level with a church and original roman home beneath that. We got to walk through three levels of history. It was incredible! They don’t allow you to take any pictures, which I’m still a little bitter about. But, it was so cool to walk through the layers of history and stand in a preserved Roman home. We even saw a functioning aqueduct still flowing through the home all those layers below.
We ended our day at La Soffitta Renovatio for dinner. We had read wonderful reviews about their gluten free pizza. It did not disappoint. This was hands down the best pizza we’ve ever had! I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing it was. The crust was thin, yet was still chewy and was sturdy enough to hold. If you are gluten free, you must go here! Go book your flight to Italy right now (and take me with you).
We polished off the remaining leftover pizza for breakfast, packed up our bags and headed to pick up our rental car to drive up to Tuscany. Driving in Italy, Rome especially, is very different than the US. The best way to describe it is to think of the cars as water flowing through the streets. The cars seem to go wherever they want and stop wherever they want and everyone just moves with and around them. I personally kinda liked it, but William wasn’t a fan.
We were heading up to Siena where we had a lovely airbnb to stay in as our “home base”. We planned to do day trips to explore Florence and all the little villages in the Chianti region. We stopped in Montepulciano on our way up for lunch at Osteria Acquacheta on a recommendation from one of William’s coworkers. It was quite an experience. They’re known for their florentine steak, so we decided to try it. These steaks have a reputation for being huge and cooked rare. The butcher came to our table to talk to us about what size we wanted, then went in the back, cut it and brought it out to show us for our approval before cooking it. We got the smallest size we could, yet even between the two of us, we still couldn’t finish it. The butcher was definitely a performer and his shop was his stage, but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
After lunch we finished the drive up to Siena. We had chosen an airbnb that was 15 minutes south of the city. Our airbnb was amazing! It was one of 4 units in a beautiful villa on a farm in what felt like the middle of nowhere. There were rolling hills all around us and you could just see Siena off in the distance.
We drove to Siena that evening and walked around as the sun was setting. Siena is wonderful; it’s just large enough to get purposefully lost in, but small enough to feel like you can understand the city. We had dinner at Osteria Enoteca Sotto Le Fonti. We were both still pretty full from the giant steak we had at lunch so we had a light dinner of pasta with truffles and a steak salad. We were ready to pass on dessert on account of the giant steak, but our waitress said they had a gluten free tiramisu. I can’t pass up tiramisu, so we had to try it. We were surprised to discover that it was a lemon tiramisu when it arrived, but it was delicious.
Montalcino and Siena
Sunday was our first full day of exploring the area in Tuscany. Driving around in that region is gorgeous. I was surprised to realize just how much the landscape looks like California. It looked like a combination of the mountains in San Diego with the rolling gold hills that you find in the areas around San Francisco. What sets Italy apart, though, are the towns on the hills with their duomo’s and towers rising up to declare their presence.
We started our morning off in Montalcino, just south of Siena. It’s a lovely town with beautiful old streets and buildings filled with character. An interesting thing we noticed throughout Italy was that the older towns rarely had sidewalks. Buildings were generally built right up to the street and the doors would open directly out onto the street, even on roads that were used by cars. It makes sense when you realized these buildings were built before cars were even a concept, but it’s an odd thing to experience now that they are.
We had a lunch reservation at Boccon Divino, just outside of Montalcino. I highly recommend this place. We sat on the patio and it couldn’t have been a more perfect location with the beautiful views of the tuscan hills.
Our meal was also fantastic, one of the best meals we had (other than that incredible pizza in Rome on the second night). We had their famous onion soup, an incredible prawn appetizer, prawn and pumpkin pasta, beef tartar and duck breast.
After lunch, we walked back up to Montalcino. A few weeks prior we had been wine tasting in Healdsburg at Unti (amazing winery btw) and their owner recommended doing a wine tasting at Enoteca la Fortezza di Montalcino. It’s a little wine bar inside the fortress of the city, which we couldn’t pass up. It wasn’t very personal, but it was a fun environment and it was interesting to try a variety of brunello wines. These are popular wines that are only produced in the area around Montalcino.
We headed back to Siena after the wine tasting. We had a small taste of the city the night before, but we were looking forward to seeing more of it in daylight. The cathedral in Siena is very unique. The high contrast of the black and white stone makes it different from most other duomos you’ll see. While wandering around the city, we found a shop that sold dairy free gelato made from a rice milk base, so of course we tried some. It was ok, but still didn’t compare to Grom.
Our dinner that night was at Gallo Nero, which came highly recommended from a close friend. It did not disappoint. I got adventurous and decided to try a cheese and honey plate for an appetizer. It was heavenly, although I regretted it slightly later than evening. The rest of the dishes were incredible as well.
Florence, Day 1
We planned to spend Monday and Tuesday in Florence to explore. William decided to park in a neighborhood just outside of Florence and take a train into the city to avoid driving and parking there. They have an automated camera ticketing system for restricted driving zones, which are really hard to avoid. We learned that it gives out a ticket almost every 40 seconds! No thank you.
Our first stop was a late breakfast at Starbene Senza Glutine, a gluten free bakery. I was in complete gluten free heaven. Just look at those pastries! We had a blackberry croissant and an apple strudel pastry. They were amazing – soft, flakey, light and fluffy yumminess.
After our sugar and carb overload, we walked around the city. I’ve always seen pictures of Ponte Vecchio and wanted to see it in real life. The bridge has shops built all over it. It’s the only bridge in Florence that survived WWII, and the legend is that the enemy decided not to destroy it because it was so beautiful. It started raining while we were there – like a complete downpour. I had a rain jacket with me, but my pants and feet were still soaked. Rain + wet feet = grumpy Hope. Not a good combo.
We had planned to get a meat plate and glass of wine for lunch so we decided to brave the rain for that. La Prosciutteria had great reviews from other celiacs and even said they were certified gluten free on a sign in their window, but when we went in, they said they couldn’t serve us. Rain + wet feet + no food = really grumpy Hope. We ended up back at Starbene for a light lunch of gluten free pizza.
Once the rain started to subside, we ventured back out to find drinking chocolate. European style drinking chocolate is too rich and thick for me, but William loves it. We found it (and a chocolate bar) at Vestri. We decided to go to the San Lorenzo Market next. I had read it was a great place to look for deals on leather jackets, and there was also a huge indoor food court next to it that was supposed to be amazing. The San Lorenzo Market was interesting and had a lot of leather items, but after seeing the same exact thing in almost every stall, I decided to pass. We headed to the food court in hopes of getting our wine and meat plate. It was a great food court, but after striking out on all the places that served meat plates, we settled for just a glass of wine at a little wine bar.
Our dinner spot was a winner, Il Desco Bistrot thoroughly understood gluten free food and happily served us. They had wonderful fresh, organic food. Toasted bread soaked in olive oil is always a must if it’s on the menu. We also had a fantastic beef dish and pork dish and couldn’t resist the gluten free chocolate cake for dessert.
Florence, Day 2
Day 2 of Florence went much smoother than the first. We discovered another larger Starbene shop right next to one of the train stops going into the city. So, we stopped off there for breakfast on the way in. Because, more croissants.
We booked a second airbnb experience that was a photo and wine tour. We wanted a few professional photos of us and thought it would be extra fun to do it with a photographer who added a few wine stops on the way. Our photographer/guide was fantastic. It was raining lightly when we started, but we still had fun talking with him and learning about different parts of the city as we walked around. We stopped at multiple places to take pictures and two different places for wine. On our last stop, we finally got a meat plate!
William found a gluten free pizza place in Florence called Ciro and Sons with amazing reviews, so we stopped there for lunch after the tour. The pizza was good – it had a thin crust with a nice chew to it, but you had to eat it with a fork and knife because it was so floppy. I also think I got a little bit of cross-contamination there, but thankfully not too bad.
We saw a few places during our photo tour earlier that we really liked so after lunch we retraced our steps. I was mostly looking for some awesome street art that I had seen down an alley. While in the area, we stopped into another chocolate shop (surprised?) called Hemingway. They specialized in all sorts of chocolate drinks and cocktails and the interior had a wonderful cozy literary style. I highly recommend coming here if you want a unique place to relax.
Now, for the best part of the day (and possibly the trip). William loves planning surprises and always finds something unique to do with me on every trip. This time he surprised me with a private cooking class hosted by a local chef in her home. It was fantastic! We made a 4-course traditional tuscan meal that was entirely gluten and dairy free. Best part? I learned how to make gnocchi! It was so much fun being in a local’s home and learning from them.
After cooking for two hours, we sat down and enjoyed the fruits of our labor with our host family. This was by far one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do.
Radda and Greve in Chianti
Wednesday was our next day to explore the Chianti region. We started off the day with leftover pastries from Starbene and then headed to Radda. All the towns in the area are relatively small and you can explore them rather quickly. They are filled with wonderful old buildings that have lots of character. Our one unexpected disappointment was just how touristy everything was. Everywhere we went seemed to have the same types of tourist shops for wine and souvenirs. While everything was adorable, we wished there was more authenticity and that we could have found more unique, artisanal and local items.
We stopped at La Cantina in Greve for lunch. They supposedly had great gluten free pizza, so I was all for trying it. It was a really fun location. The staff were super friendly and we were immediately greeted with a glass of their prosecco. We started off with fresh tomato bruschetta and then split a pizza. It wasn’t as good as our favorite place in Rome, but we still enjoyed it. When we finished, they gifted us a small taste of their panna cotta (which was delicious) and a small glass of Vin Santo (a dessert wine). It was the perfect end to the meal.
We tried walking around Greve for a little bit after lunch, but there wasn’t much there other than tourist shops. We ended up back at Radda and took a quiet moment to walk around the wall of the city.
Our last activity and our highlight for the day was a wine tasting at Ca’ di Pesa, another recommendation from a friend. This particular winery is down a very very long bumpy dirt road, a bit in the middle of nowhere. The whole way in we were praying that we were actually going in the right direction and that we’d actually be able to get out again later. Turns out both were true, thankfully. We were given a tour of the winery and a tasting with the winemaker himself. We learned all about how Chianti Classico is produced and the guidelines and restrictions around it. We had eight other tourists in our group, but it still felt very intimate and welcoming, plus the tourists were very entertaining.
Siena, Greve and Panzano in Chianti
We decided to go back to Siena on Thursday. Out of all the places that we’d gone to in the area, we liked Siena the most (not counting Florence and Rome).
Guess what we found in Siena? A third location of Starbene Senza Glutine. So, breakfast. This time I got an apricot croissant and William got a custard croissant. We took them into the Piazza del Campo to eat, it was wonderful to relax in the city’s center plaza while we ate breakfast. I highly recommend.
We had no plans so we started walking to see where we’d end up in the city. We explored all over and stumbled upon some interesting views and architecture.
We went to Il Ghibellino for lunch, it was gluten free friendly and it seemed like there were a lot of locals there too. We couldn’t resist ordering a meat plate after all the trouble we’d been having finding one. We shared a salad and Ossobuco for our main dish. We love trying a variety of things, so our strategy is usually to order one main dish and a few appetizers or first courses to share. Sometimes it takes a bit of negotiating, but it generally works well.
Guess what was next? Chocolate. William had seen a chocolate shop called Venchi on the way to the restaurant so we went back to check it out. Turns out they were having an anniversary sale and also had dairy free gelato. Eight chocolate bars later and a cup of gelato we were on our way again. If you’re looking for good dairy free gelato, this is the place to go. Not everything is dairy free, but they have a handful of flavors (chocolate being one of them). It was wonderful – thick, rich and creamy.
We went to our second tour and wine tasting at Fattoria Veticci, just north of Greve. We were excited to find that they were in the middle of harvest when we arrived and we got to go into the fields and watch the workers harvest the grapes, which was an extra special experience. Afterwards we had a relaxing wine tasting on their patio with a handful of other visitors. We were all tourists and had great conversation learning about everyone and what they had been doing.
One couple at the tasting highly recommended a little village just a few miles away called Montefioralle. We apparently were all curious about it since we ran into two of the other couples there afterwards as well. It was a tiny village that you could walk through in about 10 minutes, but it was adorable to see and felt like it had been completely lost in time.
Our dinner that evening was at Dario Cecchini Solociccia. A few people recommended this place and we were really excited for it. You know it’s going to be a fun and delicious family style meal when you’re immediately handed a glass of wine and pointed to a table of appetizers with Dario (the butcher) carving up the different cuts of meat for your dinner right in front of you. They handed us a plate of herbed lard to put on bread and let me tell you: best. thing. ever. I would have been perfectly happy eating that the whole night, but there was still a 7-course meal.
It was a family style meal and everyone was super friendly. They brought out one dish after another. We started off with muzzle and broth, then spicy meat ragu on toast, meatballs with rosemary (my favorite), white beans and olive oil, beef roast, boiled beef, and finally braised meats. It was an incredible meal showcasing all different parts of the animal cooked in different ways. And… the food and company were so much fun, I forgot to take pictures. Sorry!
Our last day in Rome
We left Siena Friday morning to drive back to Rome. We planned to spend the afternoon and night there before flying out early the next morning. After dropping off the rental car and then our bags at our airbnb, we started wandering around the city. Our first stop was a late lunch at Ginger Sapori e Salute. We had been eating so much bread and pasta we were really missing our usual healthy food so we opted for some salads, which were exactly what we needed.
After lunch we continued wandering. Our next stop was the Pantheon. It was incredible to see in person. I would so love to have seen what Rome looked like in its glory days. We also checked out Piazza Navona nearby – lots of statues and foundations. We continued walking and ended up at the Spanish Steps. I know they are supposed to be cool, but there were hundreds of people there and honestly, they were just steps. It did give us a minute to sit down and rest.
We decided to go to one last chocolate place for the day called Grezzo Raw Chocolate. It was a completely gluten and dairy free chocolate shop. I tried their chocolate and pistachio gelato. It was ok. Grom was better. Our last stop of the day and of our trip was going back to La Soffitta Renovatio for dinner. This was hands down our absolute favorite pizza place. My mouth is watering just looking at the pizza.
After 10 days we were ready to be back home, but we were sad to leave such a wonderful country. While there we walked 54.5 miles (144,813 steps) and climbed 167 flights. That’s a lot, but was probably good for us with the amount of food we ate. We definitely want to go back, especially for more of that pizza.