Dinner at la Tenda Rossa, a gourmet restaurant near Florence, Italy

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

The artwork featured relaxing images of the female form

As we endured a 30-minute cab ride along a curvy hilly road to a small town near Florence, Italy I wondered silently where we would spend the night. While the taxi driver happily discussed the area, politics, his family and just about every topic under the Italian sun, my stomach lurched and I yearned to stop moving. We had left the dry comfort (it had been raining all day) of our boutique hotel in the heart of Florence, with a high priced gourmet restaurant in the lobby, to explore the lesser known Ristoranti La Tenda Rossa, a family restaurant, believing it was only a 15-minute drive away. As we arrived in Cerbaia in Val di Pesa, the town where the restaurant was located, I was certain I would be unable to dine and be incapable of enduring a return drive to our hotel in Florence that night.

Barbara Salcuni, Natascia  Santandrea and Cristiana Salcuni were our hosts for the evening

Inside the restaurant we were greeted courteously and seated immediately.  One couple had already been seated across from our table; otherwise the restaurant, which would be full before long, was still quiet. The decor emphasized muted light, beige walls, wood floors, and quiet surroundings with pleasing artwork and sculptures. Soon I was tasting the crispy Tuscan bread (citrus, milk, croissant, cereal and olive choices) with local extra virgin olive oil. Surprisingly, in addition to the wine options, there were four types of still water and four types of sparkling water to choose from.

The bread was attractive and tasty

I eyed the French foie gras appetizers and Giorgio Grai Spumante Metodo Classico bubbly cautiously while we ordered with relative ease thanks to two of the staff’s English language skills (one of them translated the Italian menu for us). It helped that we were having the tasting menu with wine paring so there were no difficult decisions to be made.

Tiny squid with pumpkin and lobster

The restaurant was lovingly run and the food was prepared by a bevy of ladies. Evidence of the care they took were the decorative touches including well lit sculptures of women by the same artist, a friend of the family, placed around the restaurant, lovely silverware with even a small spoon for the creme brulee dish and a silver toothpick with the restaurant’s initials. The service was outstanding and the staff that looked after us were attentive and polite. We were pleased when our unfinished bread bowl was replaced with a new one filled with warm bread.

Ravioli with Tuscan vegetables

We had a seven course tasting dinner with wine pairings. First we were served a dish of bite sized appetizers, Variazioni di fegato grasso d’oca con pan-dolce: crema bruciata aromatizzato al caffé, Lollipop di fragole e pepe rosa, Club sandwich and Cornetto gelato served with warm brioche. There was a tiny squid stuffed with lobster and pumpkin “Sole” di piccoli calamari ripieni all’astice e crema bruciata di zucca gialla aromatizzata alla radice di zenzero; then we had ravioli stuffed with Tuscan vegetables, beans and olive oil (first pressing blend Tuscan and Sicilian olive oil) Ravioli di ribollita in emulsione di fagioli neri e olio Gemini, con cozze pelose tarantine; there was ricotta with a brown licorice, tomatoes and bitter dark chocolate Fiocco di ricotta in salsa bruna alla liquirizia, con pomodorini confit e bastoncino di cacao amaro; perfectly cooked lamb from the Apenino served with lamb sausage made from lamb liver and heart Agnello dell’Appeninnino in salsiccia di magro e pecorino stagionato costoletta a scotadito con sedano rapa e salsa de frattaglie; a cinnamon caramel iced palate cleanser Cannucia di gelato all a cannella; and dessert was a gelatin with nut cream filling, nut balls, pumpkin and Italian biscuits Cubi gelatina di Vinsanto farcita alla crema di nocciole zucca gialla candita cioccolato bianco e spumone di cantucci.

Paola Salcuni, Cristian Santandrea, Maria Probst, Maria Salcuni and Fernanda Salcuni were the stars in the kitchen

The wines were Riesling Auslese Kerpen 2001 Heribet Kerpen with a slight gasoline nose to counter the strong flavors of the liver dish, 2004 Pinot Bianco Russz Superiore, 2007 Marina Cvetic Masciarelli, a deep 1995 Brunello di Montalcino Fuligni and at the end Brown Label 2006 Reserve Grappa I Balzini.

Lamb with lamb sausage and popcorn

We liked the combination of subtle yet distinctive flavors at la Tenda Rossa, pretty dish presentation including unexpected touches like “lollipops,” “sandwiches,” and popcorn, the small quantity of wine served with each dish of the tasting menu which was enough to go with the dish without leftover wine or the feeling of having to drink it to avoid wasting it, the warm, relaxed ambiance and friendly staff. Thankfully our tasting menu dinner was a foodie pleasure and the drive back courtesy of the restaurant car driven by Sylvano was significantly more pleasant thanks in part to the luxury sedan we rode in and the highway roads the driver chose for our return.

Dessert at la Tenda Rossa

We would gladly return for dinner anytime we are in Florence although although next time I will request a hotel car. We will recommend this lovely restaurant to friends and colleagues heading to Florence who have the time and inclination to have dinner beyond the city limits. It was worth the drive. Ristorante la Tenda Rossa, Piazza del Monumento 9/14, 50020 Cerbaia in Val di Pesa, Telephone +30 055 826132, www.latendarossa.it, ristoranti@latendarossa.it

Rome restaurant offered satisfying seafood, welcoming service minutes from Via Veneto

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

Vincenzo's Restaurant, Rome

Ristoranti da Vincenzo

Finding a good meal in Rome, Italy proved to be a greater challenge than we had anticipated. One evening, after exploring and discarding a number of options including two well known gourmet venues, we called Ristoranti da Vincenzo, a restaurant that had been recommended by my travel agency among others. It was within walking distance from Regina Baglioni Rome, our Via Veneto hotel. Because we had been walking all day and needed a break from walking we took a taxi. A few minutes later we were comfortably seated indoors (there was an appealing outdoor area but it was chilly and we preferred to be far from smokers). It was a weekend night and soon the place was packed. A combination of tourists, seated near us, and locals, seated upstairs, filled the restaurant which was larger than we first realized.

Smoked swordfish

Smoked swordfish with roquette

The two-story restaurant was at the end of a quiet one way street. It had an urban setting with a street view and simple decor. What we liked most was that the staff were friendly and spoke English, and most importantly the food was surprisingly, and unpretentiously, good. We started with a shared Smoked swordfish with roquette followed by Linguine with lobster in tomato sauce. For mains my dining companion had a sea bass and I ordered a mixed grilled. At the server’s suggestion we ordered artichoke sides to accompany our main courses but there was plenty to eat in the main dishes and we were unable to do justice to the sides. We wrapped up the meal with berries and ice cream for my dining companion and lemon and vodka sorbet for me. Everything from beginning to end was fresh tasting and well prepared.

Seafood grill

Mixed seafood grill

We went back for lunch a couple of days later. It was a quiet midweek day allowing us to chat a little with the servers from the weekend. We were pleased to discover the staff remembered us and the food was just as good. We even met Vincenzo, the restaurant’s owner and namesake. Ristoranti da Vincenzo (Castelfidardo, 6, Rome, in English www.ristorantidiroma.com/davincenzo/homeeng.htm.



A cooking demonstration at home with Mara Martin, chef, Osteria da Fiore in Venice, Italy

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

Venice Fish Market

The fish market in Venice

We easily made our way on foot from our hotel near San Marco Square on the southern side of Venice to our meeting point, a quiet piazza where we easily found Damiano Martin, the son of the owners of Osteria da Fiore and our guide on a brief culinary stride through the streets of Venice, Italy. As we quickly walked to the fish market Damiano talked about some of the old and faded signs for bakery, fish shop, meat shop and so forth on the buildings of the city. One narrow street followed another and eventually we reached the covered market where the citizens of Venice bought their fish.

Soft shell crabs

Soft shell crabs fresh from the ocean

It was from those same vendors, Damiano explained, that Mara Martin, his mother, the chef and part owner of Osteria da Fiore restaurant, purchased seafood for the restaurant every day. She and other chefs in the city would be in contact with the fishermen very early in the morning to buy the freshest and best catch. What remained was sold retail in the fish market. What was amazing was the lack of fish smell in spite of the sunny morning and plentiful seafood in the stalls.

Next to the fish market there were produce vendors selling all kinds of fruits and vegetables from near and far. It was fun to watch the colorful display and ample selection as we walked by. As we turned, Damiano stopped to show us a corner vendor who sold the best (and priciest) produce in town. He also carried specialty and hard to get items. Before we knew it it was time to meet the chef.

Venice Fruit and Vegetable Market

Fruit and vegetable stalls in Venice market

Mara Martin is one of those people that is easy to like. She has a ready smile and radiates Italian charm. As soon as we arrived at her home, a cozy and immaculate penthouse apartment in an old Venetian building (a former noble home on the Grand Canal), she handed each of us an apron and showed us around. Our favorite place was an open terrace reached by crossing through her kitchen with a striking view over the rooftops of Venice. From there we could see forever or at least a good part of the world famed town.

Everything was ready and time was short so after a quick drink of water she began her cooking demonstration. The plan was for her to show us and for us to try to prepare the dishes with her help. Instead we watched with admiration as she whizzed through the meal preparation, explaining what she was doing in Italian while Damiano translated into English. In between her explanations and demonstrations we peppered her with questions and enjoyed the moment. It’s not everyday that a well known chef makes you a private lunch!

Sweet and Sour Breem

Sweet and sour bream Marco Polo

That day in early May, Mara prepared Sweet and sour bream Marco Polo (with leeks, ginger, raisins, citrus juice and pine nuts), Venetian black squid risotto made with Aquarelle Rice from Piedmont, Tempura fried softshell crabs and sardines (a favorite)  served with with arugula and plain salad with citrus slices and Ratafia coffee dessert, a coffee and sugar syrup sorbet. The secret to the tempura batter, she explained with a twinkle in her eye, was her personal blend of sparkling water, sparkling wine, and flour. Her tempura batter was exceptional.

Frying tempura crabs

Mara making those exceptional tempura crabs

At the conclusion of her cooking demonstration, the four of us sat down on stools in the small kitchen and enjoyed a savory and joyful meal, the fruits of several hours of her labor the previous day and that morning. She accompanied the four courses with a bottle of 2008 Frescobaldi white wine, home made crunchy and tasty bread (a favorite) and grissini (bread sticks). After the dessert Mara served bite sized home made Tuscan almond biscotti and almond flour nuggets (a favorite). Kudos to Chef Mara Martin, for a fun cooking demonstration and a beautifully prepared northern Italian meal!

The Osteria da Fiore 214-page cookbook, in English

The recipes for our meal were published, along with a host of others in a 214-page hardcover cookbook available in English and Italian for cooking course students and at the restaurant. The book was divided into four main sections: Antipasti, Primi Piatti, Secondi Piatti and Dolci (Italian for appetizers, first courses, second courses and desserts). The Sweet and sour sea bream Marco Polo recipe was on page 57; the one for Venetian black squid risotto appeared on page 107; a recipe similar to her Tempura fried softshell crabs and sardines appeared on page 157 and instructions for the Turkish Style Espresso Sorbet appear on page 183 which seems very much like the dessert she made at lunch.

The following day we visited Mara at work where we sampled a tasting menu of her choosing. Click here to read about our lunch at Osteria da Fiore.

What we liked about Naples, Italy

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

Naples was one of the stops in a spring multi-city trip we made to Italy earlier this year. Although in past years my travel partner and I had visited the region more than once, it was the first time we stayed in the coastal city. We arrived by train from Rome on a bright and sunny Tuesday at lunchtime to discover a lively and colorful city.

Pompeii in the Distance

On a clear day we could see Mount Vesuvius from our hotel

Within minutes we had maneuvered through the heavily trafficked central area to the quieter port district where our modern 10-story glass fronted hotel stood. The interior was art filled and cool. We relied on Only in Naples, a 107-page book of favorite places at our hotel, and staff recommendations to plan our discovery of the city. An hour after we stepped off the train we had settled comfortably in our hotel suite and gone for a two-hour walk near the hotel and on Via Francesco Caracciolo, a busy water hugging road where many of the tourist hotels were located. The sky was a perfect Mediterranean blue although outdoors and by the sea it was chilly and breezy. On our way back we stopped at the Gran Caffe Gambrinus in the San Giuseppe area of the city center where we had Neapolitan snacks and espresso.

Cafe Gambrinus

Cafe Gambrinus in Naples

That night we went to Pizzeria Sorbillo (Via dei Tribunali, 32, 80138 Naples, Italy, telephone +39 081 446643, in Italian‎ www.accademiadellapizza.it/), where we had the most delicious pizza we have ever tasted in a two-story pizza shop in the old town. We arrived at the third generation restaurant founded by Gino Sorbillo in 1935 in the early evening to find it was half full. We sampled three pizzas which we washed down with beer. By the time we finished dinner the restaurant was full and there was a line of people on the street in front of the entrance waiting to be seated. Our host, who lives in Naples, explained it was like that every day. With our bellies full and a smile on our faces we walked in his amiable company back to our port fronting accommodations.

Pizzeria Sorbillo

Pizzeria Sorbillo

The following afternoon we went walking again. This time we found Gay-Odin Fabrica di Cioccolato (Via Toledo 427, Naples, Italy, telephone +39 081 551 3491, in Italian www.gay-odin.it) described in our book as the city’s premier chocolate makers. We stopped at a shop near the big shopping center, one of nine Gay-Odin stores in Naples and one each in Rome and Milan. The artisan chocolate makers sold a variety of the hand made chocolates in individual pieces and varying package sizes. Although the bite size morsels drew my eye it was rather hot that afternoon and we were concerned the chocolate would not hold out very long. We purchased a small Foresta made with milk chocolate with the intention of returning to buy more if we liked them. As it turns out we did like it and it quickly disappeared. Unfortunately, we never had a chance to return. Next time…

City streets in the Naples, Italy

The streets of Naples were vibrant with shoppers and street vendors

The following afternoon, Gaia Montuoro, public relations and events manager at our hotel, invited us to see her hometown. In her company we visited more of the old town. We descended below ground level to see ancient ruins dating to Roman and Greek times at the Complesso San Lorenzo Maggiore. The archeological site that was discovered beneath the church, convent and cloister by the same name is a street three meters wide by 60 meters long surrounded by an ancient Roman market. Under the Roman ruins history lovers discovered older Greek remains. In places we could see the colored tiny tiles which, Gaia explained, likely represented wealthy residences. It was one of our favorite stops. More information, in Italian, at www.sanlorenzomaggiorenapoli.it/

Ancient ruins under the city of Naples

Ancient ruins underground in Naples

On our way to the Greco-Roman ruins we stopped in Ferrigno (Via San Gregorio Armeno 55, www.arteferrigno), the shop of an artisan nativity figurine maker before we were caught in an afternoon shower that sent us running in search of an umbrella and shelter. Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno carry on a tradition that has been going on for nearly 200 years. They and their employees make some 500 rather elaborate terracotta, wood and silk nativity scene figurines. With the owner’s permission (spring is not a popular time for nativity figure purchases so the interior was dark) we visited the two-story shop where hundreds of figurines up to 40 centimeters tall were on display.

Handmade Nativity figurines

Lifelike Nativity figurines

After we exited the San Lorenzo Maggiore ruins we stopped at the alchemist chapel or Cappella Sansevero (Via Francesco De Sanctis 19/21, 80134, Naples, Italy, telephone +39 081 5518470, info@museosansevero.it). The small space was crowded, perhaps especially so because of the rain outdoors. It housed religious art including two sculptures that stood out, The Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sanmartino and The Veiled Truth. It was the basement that had drawn a crowd requiring us to wait for them to conclude their visit. They were observing the two anatomical exhibits of the skeletons and circulatory system of a man and a pregnant woman, Anatomical Machines, thought to have been the result of treatments on live humans; it appears scientific analysis indicates the specimens were made with iron wire, silk and wax. More information, in English, at www.museosansevero.it/index_ing.html

We then stopped at the working study and art gallery of one of Naples’ sons, Lello Esposito, a friendly artist known for his distinctive Neapolitan themed work. We were invited in to browse. As we walked through his art gallery (Palazzo Sansevero Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 80134, Naples, Italy, lelloesposito.com, info@lelloesposito.com) we saw large distinctive and bold sculptures. Esposito, who had exhibited his art internationally and lived in New York for several months, welcomed us in Italian and shared his hope to one day prepare a United States themed exhibit.

Lello Esposito

Lello Esposito with one of his artistic creations

That evening after we recovered from our extended walks we stopped at Zero Sushi Bar, a sushi bar with a Japanese chef, on the ground floor of our hotel. The few bites we had were yummy and left me craving more sushi until a few minutes later we made our way to Il Comandante for a surprisingly delicious tasting menu.

Every outing and every meal we had in Naples was surprisingly satisfying. Starting with our comfort oriented luxury suite with a view at the Romeo Hotel and the staff’s warm welcome and guidance our visit to Naples was a great success. We look forward to a return visit.

A surprisingly delicious dinner at L’Albergo della Regina Isabella in Ischia

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox


Lacco Ameno in Ischia

This spring while we visited Ischia, an island off the west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea we stayed at L’Albergo della Regina Isabella hotel. Our last night on the island we had an unexpected and delicious gourmet dinner at the hotel. Although Ristorante Indaco, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, was closed for renovations we were able to sample an Indaco Tasting Menu in the hotel’s main restaurant. Chef Pasquale Padamaro, a native of Ischia, and his staff prepared an exceptional meal which we enjoyed along with a splendid night view of the Lacco Ameno town and nearby coast.

Bread and Antipasto

Handmade breadsticks and appetizers

To start there was a welcome bite of Piadina con prosciutto crudo San Daniele; also cheese, breadsticks with sesame and bread, Ricotta di bufala e acciughe di cetara, Grissini al sesamo, and Streghe. Octopus and fish tartar: Polpo alla piastra e fagioli; Antipasto tartar di palamito al basilico e cipollina le uova e il fegato alla genovese, colatura di insalata di pomodori piccatilli were next. For first courses we had: pasta with shrimp and basil sauce (a favorite), Linguine di giacomo santoleri al farro e orzo con pesto di basilico e scampi; and tiny raviolis, Cappeletti di mantecato di pezzogna con patate e provola.

Shrimp and monkfish

Monkfish with shrimp

The second course was a monkfish with perfectly cooked shrimp, Medaglione di pescatrice agli aromi e lardo di colonnata con passata di rucola e senape e gamberoni appena scottati. Pre-dessert was Centrifugato di avvogato e jogurt magro with chocolate followed by a strawberry medley dessert of strawberry cone, strawberry ice cream, and baignet of wild strawberries, Il Viaggio del pasticcere. A tray of bite sized baked sweets accompanied our hot beverages at the end of the meal.

Chef and Waiters

Our server, the chef and the maître d’hôtel

Carmine, our server, spoke English and translated the menu each time a course arrived. The pretty dinnerware that varied with each course, artistic presentation of the food including tiny flowers on the plates and an island wine to match the meal, Pigna Nera Tommasone 2006 (although it was too stout for the delicate flavors of our dinner it would have been a worthy accompaniment to a bold winter menu) rounded out the experience. The next time we visit Ischia we look forward to another dinner at the newly renovated Indaco restaurant. Click here to read about our stay at L’Albergo della Regina Isabella.

Delighted with Black Forest, southwest Germany

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

Frankfurt was our gateway to Germany's Black Forest

Frankfurt was our gateway to Germany's Black Forest

Earlier this year, my husband and I had an opportunity to visit the famed Black Forest and nearby areas of southwestern Germany. We were pleased to discover several small family owned and managed hotels, part of the Romantik chain of 200 independently owned and managed hotels and restaurants in 11 European countries, offering comfortable and modern accommodations including some with spa facilities. We were especially delighted with the friendly and welcoming hosts and their staff, striking scenery and outstanding foodie havens we visited during our two-week drive through the countryside.

Although neither of us speaks German we had visited that European country in the past and were confident we would have a pleasant trip. In past trips to Germany most of the business people we encountered spoke some English so we were surprised to discover that once we veered off the urban core of Frankfurt, English was scarce. So we made do with our few phrases of German and many smiles. Almost without exception locals made us feel welcome with their warm and friendly attitude. Whether it was fellow guests, staff or strangers in public areas someone was always willing to listen to our broken German and communicate with us.

A quiet area at Bollant's Spa

A quiet area at Bollant's Spa

Petit fours at Passione Rossa

Petit fours at Passione Rossa

After landing in Frankfurt and picking up our spiffy German rental car with heated seats (it was late winter/early spring and definitely cold) and global positioning system (GPS), we headed to the village of Bad Sobernheim where we spent two nights recovering from the jet lag and being pampered with good food and spa time at the Romantik Hotel BollAnt’s im Park, Bollant’s Spa at at BollAnt’s im Park Romantik Hotel and Vital Spa and Passione Rossa restaurant.

Jörg Glauben and Birgit Neumueller at Tschifflik restaurant

Jörg Glauben and Birgit Neumueller at Tschifflik restaurant

We also visited the Romantik Hotel Landschloss Fasanerie on the outskirts of the town of Zweibrucken near France. Once again we took advantage of the property’s spa services and sampled its outstanding local and continental cuisine. Before leaving we had a gourmet dinner at the well known Tschifflick.

The lobby at Residenz am See in Meersburg

The lobby at Residenz am See in Meersburg

A delicate fish course at Casala

A delicate fish course at Casala

Behind the scenes at Residenz am See

Behind the scenes at Residenz am See

From there we headed south through snow covered mountains to Meersburg, a small and picturesque village with cobblestone streets on the shores of Lake Constance. We thoroughly enjoyed our brief stay in a penthouse suite at the Romantik Hotel Residenz am See, one of our favorite properties during the trip for sheer friendliness, a well appointed suite and delicious food. While we were there we attended a German pastry baking class in German. With the help of our small group of fellow students and the pastry chef’s interjections we learned a little and had a fun morning baking delicious regional and German treats. Meals at the hotel restaurants including dinner at Casala Restaurant, were outstanding!

The Romantik Hotel Sackmann Spa pool

The Romantik Hotel Sackmann Spa pool

One of the delicious dishes we tried at the Restaurant Schlossberg

One of the delicious dishes we tried at the Restaurant Schlossberg

From there we returned to the Black Forest to the Romantik Hotel Sackmann in the municipality of Baiersbronn. We especially liked the hotel’s riverside location, gourmet restaurant and fabulous spa facilities.

We would recommend the region to scenery, spa and gourmet food oriented friends and acquaintances willing to venture to areas where English is not commonly spoken. As an added bonus this part of Germany offered great value for money compared to urban areas in Europe.