Italy Day 4 – Verona, Parma and Florence

We met our driver, Beppe, at the Plaza della Roma at 8:30 to hit the road for Florence.

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Beppe is the nicest guy ever. You couldn’t wipe the smile from his face if you tried. His personality reminds me of Roberto Benini. Just super happy and loving life. It’s great that we got him to drive us instead of taking a train or something, because he’s teaching us a TON of stuff about Italy. He’s kind of like having a personal tour guide.

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Our first stop was in Verona. It’s a beautiful city with a very wealthy history. The buildings are palatial – many with elaborate decorative carvings and big arched windows.

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At the center of town are the remains of the Verona coliseum. Apparently, it’s kind of like the one in Rome, but smaller. It’s a pretty interesting contrast to the strip of high-end fashion shops that runs along behind it.

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Verona feels a lot different than Venice did. For one, there’s traffic. You’d be surprised how quickly you forget to look both ways when you’ve spent 3 days in a city with no cars.

It’s also the city where Romeo and Juliet took place. Beppe took us to the house where Juliet lived, which is just off the main drag. It was pretty cool – every centimeter of wall space is covered with love graffiti. (some written straight on the wall, some on post-it notes). Not sure that these pictures do it justice.

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And here is the famous balcony, where Juliet let down her hair and Romeo climbed up and freed her from the second floor bedroom.

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Verona is also home to the most gorgeous cappuccino anyone has ever made.

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It was almost too pretty to drink. Almost.

Here are a few more random shots from Verona:

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(These fields of poppies were everywhere in Veneto and Emilia-Romagna)

After checking out Verona, we hit the road for Parma (and, more importantly, lunch).

In my head, Parma was this sleepy little town nestled in the hills where the houses are all made of stone. And little old ladies bring buckets to the well for water. And the men stand around the church square playing bocce ball and being curmudgeons.

I was slightly off.

Parma is a city of 170,000 people. And a really nice one at that. Kind of modern-y feeling, but with a lot of old charm.

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And there are lots of trees and park space. It’s the kind of place that I’d live if I lived in Italy. Big enough to be a pretty decent sized city, but small enough (and clean enough) to not be New York-y.

If you’ve heard of Parma, it’s probably because of their food. They’re world famous for Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

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So, those were the two requirements going into lunch. Beppe took us to a trattoria and salumeria called Sorelle Picchi.

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It was one of my favorite meals ever.

Apparently this place is well known all over Italy. Beppe said that he brought his family there from Prato just to eat. Now I know why. The antipasti was a plate covered with delicate ribbons of freshly sliced Prosciutto di Parma served with golf ball sized hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

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It was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve ever had. The prosciutto was so tender, it melted on your tongue. And the contrasting punch of the cheese was the perfect compliment. The waitress recommended a trio of tortelloni (kind of like mini ravioli). One had an herb and cheese stuffing, the second, some sort of meat ragu and the third was served in a porcini mushroom sauce.

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All three were absolutely amazing. Of course, we had to have dessert. Zabaglione (sort of like ice cream) drowned in a thick, warm chocolate sauce. Fantastic.

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And all of the people in the restaurant were really nice to boot. It was exactly the kind of meal that I came to Italy to experience. Add it to the register of frustration and deprivation.

After lunch, we took a short walk around the center of Parma just to get a feel for the city.

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We came to this big old castle that a lot of the University students were using as a quad. It was kind of funny to see. Might as well have been back in Syracuse, except the buildings were replaced by a big Medieval-looking castle.

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There was a concert going on inside, although not a good one. Apparently bad rock music translates, regardless of language.

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Then we took off for Florence. It was tough to get pictures through the window, but the view from the highway was really picturesque – lots of hills and cypress trees and little farm houses.

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When we got to Florence, Beppe dropped us off at the hotel, we checked in, made a dinner reservation and went for a walk around town (and got slightly lost. For a change.)

The first thing you notice in Florence is that the sidewalks are REALLY skinny. Some, no more than a foot or two wide. I passed an American guy on the street who was telling his family that in America, the sidewalks can’t be any less than 5 feet wide. That’s because we’re fatter.

I’m only half joking. Because Italians are in SO much better shape. Especially the under 30 crowd. Everyone is cover-model fit. So Atkins be damned. These people eat nothing but bread and pasta.

Also, gelaterias in Florence are like Starbucks in New York. You can stand in the middle of the street and see 3 gelaterias just by turning your head. Of course, we had to stop and try one. This one’s half caffe, half pistaccio.

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We’re staying at the Hotel Orto de Medici. The room’s kind of small, but very classy – there’s a chandelier that hangs above the beds and there’s a balcony with a nice view of the courtyard and the red tile Florence rooftops. The bathroom has a balcony too, with a view of the Duomo.

Random thought – one thing that kind of surprised me about Italy, though I guess it really shouldn’t have, was the modern parts. The industrial sections, the urban sprawl and Ikea at every major city. Venice certainly contributed to that – it’s more like something out of a storybook than an actual place where people live. I guess it was just American ignorance. Sure, I expected regular city stuff, but I guess in my head, I pictured the really old cathedrals and quaint hilltop towns and not much else. But in Italy, just like back home, there’s traffic and smokestacks and shady guys on sidewalks selling fake sunglasses. (Although here, they’re fake Dolce and Gabbanas instead of fake Oakleys.)

Beppe said something today that kind of stuck with me. We were talking about travel and about how he’s been all over Europe and parts of Asia. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this:

“You can’t say how well you are living without going out and traveling and seeing how well people are living in other places. It is only then that you can say whether or not you are living well.”

Well put.

FOOD UPDATE:

Dinner was at Quattro Leoni, a trattoria recommended by my “Food Lover’s Guide to Florence” book. The place was funky and charming at the same time. We sat outside on the patio, which looked out over the Piazza della Passera, a small courtyard-like piazza in San Spirito. I had two classic dishes that I’ve never tried before. Primi was Pappa al Pomodoro, a thick Tuscan tomato stew made with day-old bread.

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It was very good. Not having had it before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. But it was still very good. Secondi was Osso Buco (slow cooked veal shanks).

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I wasn’t too crazy about it, but I think that was more a function of the texture of the marrow. It was a little bit weird. Kind of like hot jelly. But I had to try it.

Also, the Tuscan bread is very different. They make it without any salt. The crust is thick and a little crisp (sort of like ciabatta bread, but not as chewy) and the bread is bland. It’s intended to be a blank canvas for olive oils, bruschetta toppings (pronounced “broos-Ketta.” Thank you very much, “Learn Italian in One Day”), and for sopping up the pasta sauce from the bottom of the plate.* Which, according to The Food Lover’s Guide, is called “Fare la scarpetta,” or “doing the slipper.” I don’t really know what that means. But it tastes good. Much better than a slipper. (Though Natty might disagree.)

*Post Script: I learned later in my cooking class that the reason the bread doesn’t have salt goes back to when salt used to come from the coast. Pisa, which lies between Florence and the Mediterranean, tried to put a tax on the salt going to Florence. The Florentines said whatever Italian is for “take your salt and shove it.”

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