Category: Food & Drink

Italy Days 11, 12 & 13: Celebrazione e famiglia

I’m writing Days 11-13 together because it was 1:30 in the morning before I went to bed Saturday night. Yesterday we were honored to attend my niece’s Bat Mitzvah. Like her parents, I’m so proud of all the work she put in towards this day, studying and preparing for the last three years.

The event started at 5pm with cocktails in the garden of Palazzo Corsini al Prato in Florence. The kids enjoyed running through the garden hedges and gathering the lemons that had fallen from the trees. We took family photos with our cousins and enjoyed the flowing Prosecco.

This was now my fourth bat mitzvah, so while I’m still not fluent in Hebrew, I am much better at following along. We sang and chanted in Hebrew, listened to readings from the Torah, and heard lovely words from family members. It was cold and windy by the end, with the wind blowing out the flame on the braided candle, but both my niece and the Rabi were unfazed.

After the ceremony there was another hour or so of cocktails and photos, but this time in both the garden and an interior room more like a night club. There was a great amount of space for the kids to run around and let off steam before sitting down for the three course meal.

I was psyched to see the photo booth… it was one of my favorite memories from my oldest niece’s bat mitzvah. The props were on point – complete with a statuette of David set to piss off a few Texans.

One smart thing we did, all credit going to my sister for the idea, was to hire a babysitter to attend the event with us and look after #1LittleSister. She was also there as a back up plan in case anyone needed to go home early – we wouldn’t all have to leave the event. It turned out we didn’t need that backup plan as the kids were in full-on party mode. Anytime I set #1LittleSister down in a room that wasn’t the dance floor, she made a B-line back towards the music and lights. That girl loves a party.

One of the most impressive event of the evening was the performance art show of building the dessert. Four men laid layers of wafer, piped gallons of creme and poured chocolate chips in distinct layers to create a giant cannoli. It not only looked impressive but was delicious.

The DJ played great music – a mix of American pop hits set to discoteca type club tracks. I was caught off guard when a pounding track with a euroclub beat turned out to be the hippest version of hava nagila ever heard. Up went my nieces in chairs into the air. Somehow my sister skipped out on flying high this time around.

Lounge at Palazzo San Niccolo

We lasted til just after 11 and left the dance floor full. By the time we got home, got everyone to bed and packed up for our morning departure it was nearly 2 am. The next morning we were to be at the garden of Palazzo San Niccolo for a send off Easter brunch.

The garden setting was perfect for Easter. Casual, airy, with wisteria in full bloom. The food was excellent and surprisingly kid-friendly. My kids are fruititarians, so they were in heaven.

The brunch started with an Easter egg hunt. The caterer laid out simple white baskets and hid chocolate eggs all around. The kids were elated. We’d done an egg hunt at our house before leaving for Italy as we weren’t sure what traditions to expect. I can only hope they don’t expect two egg hunts again next year. $50 says #1BigSister remembers and calls me out on it next April.

It was nice to have just that little bit of extra time to spend with family and talk in a more quiet setting. After losing my dad and his brother in the last 14 months, I’m reminded how little time we have with some people. Yes, you’d think as a part of my job I would know that because I see it play out everyday… unexpected car crashes, seemingly benign pain that turns out to be cancer… but somehow I think I’d lost part of that awareness you get when you touch death regularly. I hadn’t actually realized I’d fallen into it until just now as I type this out actually… which makes me feel a bit of shame… because that’s always been one of the greatest gifts of my job. Perspective. To keep that focus on what truly matters. It’s why I left my last career. And here I am taking it for granted again.

TeamLouka + G

For me, and I know Amir as well, travel is the reason we work as hard as we do, trudge through some of the monotony and the grind of those other days. Yes, those little mundane moments are beautiful in their own messy sort of way, but sometimes beautiful is just beautiful, too. I like to mix it up.

We’re on our way home and contemplating our next adventure. Last Christmas we discussed a change in tradition – instead of the pilgrimage home to Virginia Beach – perhaps a trip to London since half the family lives on that side of the Atlantic. But… that would mean giving up that tradition for at least this year… which wouldn’t have to be forever, but sometimes forever comes before you expect it.

So I’m not sure. But I do know this trip has been like a marathon… I’m not going to lie and say it’s been as rosy as my posts may seem. It’s been painful, long, difficult at times – but full of moments that recharged us. And as we approach the finish line on flight 2 of 3, I feel that sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and purpose. I’m still going to give it some time to decide about London though. I’m not sure this is the right time for big decisions.


Italy Day 10: Turista massimo

Amir’s mother, Julia, is staying with us in Florence which has been a nice way to spend time together. We’d been on the lookout for ways to explore the city that don’t involve a tremendous amount of walking. Our kids can be hit or miss with cooperation, and Florence is quite hilly. So when Amir identified a golf cart tour, it was a perfect fit.

Me, #1BigBrother and Julia

We booked through a company called They were most responsive by WhatsApp and were able to pick us up right at our front door.

We liked the golf cart because we were able to see parts of Florence we’d never have wandered to on our own, and the speakers in the cart explained the history and architecture of everything we were seeing as we went along. The only down side of the cart is that since it’s motorized, it’s restricted in some areas like the plaza with the Duomo. But if you or anyone in your party have mobility limitations, it’s a great solution.

#1BigSister found her favorite ride

Somehow we managed to work up an appetite riding in the golf cart, so of course we headed to lunch next. More pizza. I might be reaching my pizza limit.

Anxiously awaiting her pizza

After lunch we walked to the Palazzo Vecchio just to take a closer look at some things. We didn’t have the attention span to commit to the whole museum, so we walked through the ground floor only. It did not disappoint.

Palazzo Vecchio

At Palazzo Vecchio we spotted some horse drawn carriages. Amir and I were content with our city tour via the golf cart, but the kids desperately wanted to meet the horses. For 50€ we hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us on a second and very different (no motor) tour of the sites.

After leaving our horse friends, we headed back to the AirBnB for some R&R. Tonight we had the first of many events this weekend in celebration of my niece. This evening my sister hosted all of the out of town friends and family at her home (Galileo’s house) for dinner, drinks and great conversation. Amir and I took our obligatory rooftop view photo, despite the fact that it was pouring rain.

View of the Duomo and Florence from Galileo’s rooftop

Tomorrow we are free until 5 when the bat mitzvah begins. Then I’m somehow expected to stay awake until two as to not miss any of this amazing experience. I may try to sleep in tomorrow… or even nap… if my kids last longer than I do, I’ll never live it down.

Good night all. Sleep well.


Italy Day 9: Two hour lunches & naps in the garden

We had a slow start this morning, and not for any particular reason. As per usual at home, #1BigSister was first awake and quickly asking me to turn on everyone’s new favorite show, “Bread Barbershop” (Netflix) about a slice of bread who works decorating the bald “heads” of various cupcakes, adding swirls of icing, sprinkles, chocolate pieces – lots of flare. Bluey is still the best – but Bread is running a close second.

I made a casual breakfast by cutting up some fruit I bought yesterday and arranging concentric circles of meat. I forgot the croissants – but no one noticed.

Sometimes it feels like vacation is just passing the time until you eat again… and in Italy that seems even more condensed. Yesterday we made a lunch reservation at Chalet Fontana, a lovely restaurant with gardens and terrace dining. We went last time we came to Italy. I was psyched to make a return.

Checking out the tadpoles

We ordered the octopus, salad and beef tartare for starters, then we each had an entre – servings were generous. The kids enjoyed rolling around in the grass, and I appreciated that no one at the restaurant seemed to care.

We had two tables, 11 of us total. We took our time, talked, drank, watched the kids do silly things… slowed down. It was lovely. It was Italy… well, likely anywhere in Europe. These are the moments that tempt me to go expat.

After lunch we all went separate ways. #1LittleSister and I took a walk in the stroller from Chalet Fontana back to our AirBnB, but of course I took that opportunity to stop and take photos as well as pop into some stores in search of the perfect thank you gifts for some friends back home helping us out while we are gone.

Il Torchio del Erin Ciulla

At my sister’s recommendation, I stopped in to check out a small store for handmade books. The artist is a Canadian expat who fell in love with Florence on a study abroad and made her way back as fast as life allowed. Her shop is so special. I picked up two handmade things which she gift wrapped for me free of charge.

Views along my walk

As I mentioned, one meal seems to roll right into the other here, so it was soon time for dinner… but first a little snack from Madeline, a pastry shop unfortunately for my waistline located right outside our door. So for those counting, that’s Gelato to the right and pastries right across the street.

Fruit torte and cannoli with limoncello

I’m starting to get worried about when we get home and everyone is off of their sleep schedules. This will go one of two ways… either the kids will be so exhausted their bodies don’t even care what time it is and then just crash… or they stay awake for 18 hours straight and #1BigSister gets in trouble for falling asleep at school. I don’t want to jinx myself with a prediction.

In keeping with the daily gelato tradition, after dinner we stopped by a small store right at the foot of Ponte Vecchio. Everyone was good at sharing. #1LittleSister played the cute card hard and wooed the gelato women into gifting her a free waffle cone wafer. I swear she’s a 21 year old trapped in a 1.5 year old body. She knows what she’s doing.

Ponte Vecchio at night

After gelato we walked for a bit, but the length of the day and the cold weather were wearing on everyone. We turned back and looked for a taxi to take my mom back up “the hill” to my sister’s house where she’s staying. Unfortunately there were none to be found, nor through Uber, so my sister came and picked her up in her “car.”

Generous leg room

Tomorrow we are hoping to rent either a golf cart or some other kind of vehicle to take a quick ride through the city and see some parts out of walking distance. In the evening, we have a BABYSITTER from 6-9, and will head to my sister’s house for a meet and greet for our of town friends and family. I’m looking forward to seeing many of my cousins who will be here. I only have 5 (total in both sides), and 3 will be here. And with that, sleep calls again.


Italy Day 5: Castello di Torre Alfina & Lago di Bolsena

Sleep was scarce last night. We had to barricade #1BigBrother in his room as he kept escaping and roaming the halls all night. We’ve decided tonight not to even fight it. We’ll watch movies until they pass out.

We didn’t have much, any, of a plan for today. We had to get gas for the car, but beyond that, we were just driving and exploring. While Amir was pumping petrol, I took to Google Maps scoping out the nearest castles. Yes, there are many choices, one atop every hill in fact.

I found Castello di Torre Alfina, just 15 minutes away and with 127 five star reviews. Sold. It didn’t open for an hour though, so the kids were so disappointed we just had to get gelato… again. It’s been a daily occurrence. this time we added cannolis.

Dark chocolate, white chocolate and pistachio cannolis

The castle doors opened right on time. #1BigBrother was tied with Amir to be first inside. The gates opened up to a large garden and u-shaped courtyard where we found a small door to purchase tickets. #1BigSister immediately took to doing cartwheels in the grass. She’s a gymnast now. Monday nights.

Courtyard of Castello di Torre Alfina

At first we were afraid we’d be shut out of a tour. We weren’t sure if small children weren’t allowed, or if the tour guides just didn’t speak English. It didn’t take long for our English-speaking guide, Eva, to appear and introduce herself to the kids. Phew.

As soon as we entered, we knew we were in for an unexpected experience. For starters, we were the only family there. We had the place to ourselves. We had Eva to ourselves. Amir pelted her with question after question like a kid asking for candy answers.

The tour encompasses two floors. If you want the history lesson on the castle, I’m not your gal. Ask Amir. I was too busy taking photos every five feet as I encountered aesthetic moments one after the other that just required capturing. I was also baby-wearing squirmy #1LittleSister, which required me to up my photography game to avoid 2G of blurry photos.

After the castle, we loaded everyone back into the JEEP and again consulted our friendly tour guide Google Maps for a next stop. We’d been eyeing up a large volcanic lake on the map. I’d noticed it when researching our AirBnB. We set course.

The castle at Lake Bolsena

It turns out Lake Bolsena also has a castle. I’m not kidding you – the things are everywhere. This time we were hungry though, so we hiked up the hill towards the castle, but our destination was a small cafe called I Sapori del Castello. Somewhere along the upward climb it started raining… cold rain. Rain that just seemed extra wet. When we finally reached the restaurant, we worried they might not let us in looking so war-torn.

Small starters: artichokes, fish salad and anchovies on toast. Delicioso!

The kids surprisingly didn’t eat much (there was pizza, too)… but we needed to move along to our next stop before it got too dark. We are brave explorers, but only in the daylight.

We walked back down that huge hill and stopped at the overlook to appreciate the volcanic lake and surrounding village. The rain had passed and the shivering stopped.

At the overlook, Amir spotted a ferris wheel down below, at the edge of the lake. I’d have thought for sure the kids would have seen it first – but we had to point it out to them. There was no question where we were headed next.

After three turns on the ferris wheel, it was our turn to exit. We took one last lap near the water to get a close up look at the fishing boats before heading back to the car. As a lover of all vehicles and vessels, #1BigBrother was quite satisfied.

Tomorrow we might check out the geothermal pools – but that all depends on everyone’s willingness to sleep tonight. Here’s hoping for more rest than the last 5 nights.


Italy Day 4: Point and Go

Amir described it best about ten minutes into driving our rental car. “The name of the game here is just point and go.” The cars are tiny and swift, darting in and out. Lanes seem to be a suggestion not the law.

Shortly after escaping the city we found ourselves in the rolling Tuscan countryside featured in all those college dorm room posters. Diane Lane would be proud of me for tackling this trip.

We ascended a bridge stretching across a winding river far, far below. The GPS informed us this was the River Tiber, which sent a wave of emotion across me. Last time we touched the Tiber as a family was 2018, on our last trip to Rome. We’d lost an unexpected but very much wanted pregnancy 10 days prior. At the time we were a family of three. We threw light pink roses into the River Tiber as a way to acknowledge the loss. Today, as we crossed that same river in a car as a family of five, in a compact SUV stuffed to the top like manicotti, I felt relief, peace, amusement and surprise at just how much your life can change in 5 years.

Every trip we take we like to book an “Extreme Rental.” In Arizona, it was a JEEP for off-roading, in Denmark a Christiana bicycle, yesterday a family bike. Today we added a JEEP Renegade to the mix – Amir at the wheel as usual, me looking up the significance of historic ruins (pro tip: Spot something of interest, find its name on Google Maps then look it up on good old Wikipedia). Amir’s a big history buff, so this is the least I can do since he always takes the hard job of driving.

Our JEEP Renegade

Our AirBnB is about two hours outside of Rome, in the Lazio region. A different listing initially caught my eye, but then I noticed the other had no bathtub (dealbreaker when traveling with small ones). Podere Palazzo offered a huge bathtub and was slightly cheaper – an easy decision.

The villa has a small English-style garden, a pond with koi fish surrounded by rosemary blooming with purple flowers. There’s a swing that #1BigSister is sure to monopolize, and two hammocks for Mama and Dada, There’s an outdoor dining table with a fireplace and seating area, plus an infinity pool (which we were told would be closed but looks pretty ready to enjoy).

I’m not sure words can do any service to the beauty of this villa, so I’ll just say that we finished the evening with a meal cooked here in our kitchen by Valeria, the sister of the owner. Our first course was fresh tomato bruschetta with a potato and egg torte. Next we had handmade spaghetti (a kid favorite), followed by Chicken Cacciatore, but not like the version I know… this one required cooking the chicken in white wine until nearly all the wine reduced, then adding balsamic, fresh rosemary and a touch of olive oil. That’s all then reduced down to a sticky, delicious broth. Man how I wish I could capture the aromas for you to experience.

There’s a lot more I could write about today, but unfortunately getting the kids to bed is still a nightly battle. And it’s exceptional torture as all three won’t sleep. Good thing I’m pretty sure we landed in paradise today. I think I’ll survive.