Thursday, October 08, 2015

Eating Our Way Through Italy: An Introduction to Italian Food

I take food on vacation seriously. Why go to an exotic locale only to eat things you could eat at home? I probably spent at least as much time looking up restaurant recommendations as I spent researching sightseeing. If we were going to have a finite number of meals in Italy, I did not want to waste them on mediocre food.

Of course, based on where we were when it was time to eat, or on time limitations, we couldn’t be particular about seeking out specific restaurants for every single meal. But we did our best to avoid tourist traps and find places the locals enjoy. We also got out of our comfort zone and tried some really unusual foods!


One piece of advice I got from Smitten Kitchen (where else do I get good food advice?!) was to use the Italian menu, even if an English menu is available. In her "Notes and Tips from Rome," she noted:
Like most cities, we usually had the best meals in the places out of the main squares and that didn’t boast menus in several languages (though we found that almost everyone spoke passable English, far more passable than our Italian!). Along these lines: If you feel that you know the names of most Italian dishes and major ingredients, I recommend using the Italian menus even when English ones are offered. I found the English ones to often have confusing translations (i.e. “potato rounds in bacon and broken tomatoes”) when the actual dish (“gnocchi all’amatriciana”) was something quite familiar and lovely.

This proved to be wise advice. A couple of times we *only* had an Italian menu and just made our way using my limited familiarity + Google Translate (which was sometimes laughable). But those were almost always our best meals. Even when the English was available, we had to compare it to the Italian since the translations were often rough.


My specific goals for eating in Italy included:
  • pasta all’amatriciana and pasta alla carbonara in Rome 
  • pasta alla Genovese in Naples 
  • Neapolitan pizza 
  • gelato as often as possible (more on that in a separate post!) 
  • lemon granita in Sorrento 
  • mozzarella di bufala in Naples/Sorrento

I am proud to say I accomplished every one—and had a whole host of other food adventures, some fabulous, some...not so much!

A traditional Italian dinner has four courses (five if you add dessert): 
  1. Antipasti - An appetizer, antipasto literally means "before pasta."
    Prosciutto e melone - this antipasto was on just about every menu

  2. Primi - The first course is always pasta, risotto, or soup of some kind.
    Penne Nella from Trattoria Nella in Firenze

  3. Secondi - The second course is always centered around a protein.
    Arista con patate (roast pork with potatoes) from Trattoria Nella

  4. Contorno - Side dishes, especially vegetables. Steve and I were actually kind of astounded at the lack of vegetables on our trip. Your main dish does not typically come with any; you have to order them separately. Often, Italians eat salad at the end of the meal rather than at the beginning as Americans usually do. The contorni section of the menu was often very sparse (and they *always* put radicchio in salads, and I hate radicchio!). But if you don't order one, you pretty much won't see any other vegetables at your table. 
    Misto di verdure alla griglia (mix of grilled vegetables) from La Tradizione

  5. Dolce - Desserts, literally "sweets."
    Biscotti e vin dolce (cookies and sweet wine--wine not pictured) from Il Latini
It's also common to finish the meal with a shot of espresso (NOT cappuccino...milk after tomatoes is traditionally thought to be bad for digestion!)

That said, Italians don't always eat all four courses; it's common to order just two of the courses. In just about every restaurant we tried, the portion sizes were *not* at all conducive to one person eating all four courses! In the interest of trying a wider variety of dishes, Steve and I typically would order an antipasto, a primo, a secondo, and a contorno and just share everything. This seemed to work out  well for the most part.

Bucatini alla Don Salvatore from La Tradizione

I’ll be talking about some of our very favorite meals in future posts, but as an introduction, I wanted to provide a one-stop list of places we ate and would (or would not) recommend.

  • La Gallina Bianca, Via Antonio Rosmini 9 - Our first lunch place (as I described yesterday) was OK, not anything special. 
  • Vecchia Roma, Via Ferruccio 12b/c- Fantastic traditional dishes; we loved the all'amatriciana and the coda alla vaccinara (pictured in yesterday's post).
  • Caffe di Porta Castello, Largo di Porta Castello 27-28 - Here we were overwhelmed at the panini options and asked the waitress what she'd recommend, which led to the discovery that we loved bresaola, a cured beef cold cut.
  • Flavio de Velovevodetto, Via di Monte Testaccio 97 - One of the most memorable experiences of Rome's offal dishes; I'll be writing a whole post about this one.
  • La Fonte Torrato, Piazza dei Crociferi 6 - We grabbed quick panini here on the go. Steve's caprese was just "eh" but my proscuitto e formaggio was fantastic; I was delighted when they toasted it unexpectedly.
  • Il Pastarito, Via IV Novembre 139 - Very unremarkable tourist spot. The restaurant we wanted to check out was inexplicably closed and this was a nearby alternative when we were tired and hungry. Steve really enjoyed his Greek salad (vegetables, as I said, had been notably lacking all week) but my carbonara wasn't great. Yummy tartufo for dessert though. 

Campania (greater Napoli area and the Sorrentine peninsula):
  • La Tradizione, Via Giuseppe Verdi 26, Portici - Our best restaurant experience. The food was good, but the overall experience was unforgettable--so much so, we went back a second time. Full post coming on this one.
  • Di Matteo, Via dei Tribunali 94, Napoli - Super cheap way to try a bunch of classic Neapolitan street food, but we didn't love any of it and the process of getting it was really chaotic and confusing.
  • Locanda del Cerriglio, Via del Cerriglio 3, Napoli - Another fabulous out-of-the-way spot that doesn't get a lot of tourist traffic. We loved it. Full post coming.
  • Il Ritrovo, Via Montepertuso 77, Positano - We popped in here during our hike on the Amalfi Coast and got a bunch of free treats to try, all of them delicious!
  • Covo Dei Saraceni (Via Regina Giovanna 5, Positano) - Very satisfying focaccia caprese, but after our hike anything would have tasted good I imagine. The gelato was also yummy. 

  • Ristorante Queen Victoria, Via Por Santa Maria 32 - Ugh. We popped in here for a quick lunch en route to our first museum and it was utterly disappointing, clearly a tourist trap. The pizza was a disgrace.
  • Tre Merli, Via dei Fossi 12 - Great take-out pizza on a night when we were exhausted and needed something we could take "home" with us to kick back. We polished off two pizzas ourselves!
  • La Cantinetta di Rignana, Via Rignana 11, Greve in Chianti - Oh. My. Goodness. The fresh pasta was incredible. And lots of other traditional Tuscan dishes to try, some amazing, some (I'm not gonna lie) gross. I'll write more about this one. 
  • Antica Osteria 1 Rosso, Borgo Ognissanti 1 - Great location for dining al fresco; the food wasn't our favorite but that may be because we were so stuffed from lunch at La Cantinetta di Rignana. My stomach wasn't ready for the rich food here.
  • La Pasta Fresca at Mercato Centrale - The options on the second floor food court at Mercato Centrale were completely overwhelming, but this proved to be a good choice, even if it felt weird to eat green beans and potatoes in my linguine.
  • Trattoria Nella, Via delle Terme 19r - A friend said their ravioli in walnut cream sauce was the best thing in Firenze ever, but it didn't sound as good as other stuff on the menu. Our experience here was satisfactory, not the best food but not the worst either. Service wasn't fantastic. 
  • I Due Fratellini, Via dei Cimatori 38R - Fun little lunch spot for panini, recommended in all the guidebooks but not nearly so busy as we expected.
  • Il Latini, Via dei Palchetti 6r - Utter chaos, but some delicious food. I'll write more about this one, too. 
As you can see...I was a little obsessed with Italian food :) And as a disclaimer, I am obviously very much NOT an expert on any of this, so if something I've said here is incorrect, please let me know! But we definitely had fun getting a taste of new cultures. Food was a big part of our trip, so I'll be posting more details about a few of the restaurants, as well as more on the classic cuisines of each region.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Rome Day 1: Basilica di San Clemente, Colosseum and Roman Forum

After checking into our B&B on our first day in Rome, we headed out to get out phones set up and grabbed some lunch at La Gallina Bianca, a neighborhood spot our hosts had recommended. This was our first opportunity to try something I'd read about: zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried. We didn't love them, honestly--they were OK, just not our favorite--but since we'd never eaten them before, we don't really know whether they weren't our taste or whether maybe this place just didn't make very good ones. I was taken aback by how huge they were--I guess it's been a while since I've seen zucchini flowers, since I don't garden personally, but I wasn't expecting them to be the size of my hand! Later in the week we saw zucchini for sale in a food market with the flowers still attached:

We also decided to try our first Roman pizza, and we somehow got the impression that the pizzas on the menu were a single-serving size, so we each ordered one. We were astounded at what showed up on our plates! I hated having to waste so much food but there was no way I was eating nearly all that pizza. Steve got arugula (which amusingly often gets translated "rocket salad" on English menus), proscuitto and cherry tomatoes on his; I discovered the hard way that zucchini, eggplant, and broccoli don't really belong on pizza. 

Then it was finally time for some sightseeing! We walked through a park and got our first glimpse of the Colosseum:

We continued on to Basilica di San Clemente, which seemed like a great first taste of the history of Rome.

It's a church built in the 12th century, which is amazing enough in itself. But below that, you can see the ruins of a Christian church from the 4th century, with bits of frescoes and mosaics still intact. Then you go down another level, and you see the remains of a pagan temple to the god Mithras dating back to the first century AD. The floors are tiled in this intricate herringbone pattern--photography was forbidden inside, but here's a photo of similar tile from the Colosseum:

Since I couldn't take pictures of the ruins, the only other picture I have from San Clemente is from the courtyard:
 From there we returned to the Colosseum.

Of course I'd seen a thousand pictures of the Colosseum before, but it's hard to get a sense of the scale without seeing it in person. I also had no idea what the inside looked like: 

Rather than paying for audioguides or a tour guide, we used the Rick Steves Audio Europe app to learn about what we were seeing. It was incredible to stand in such an impressive structure that has lasted for so many centuries--yet also disturbing to look around and think about the horrifyingly barbaric things that happened here.

After going through the Colosseum, we saw the Arch of Constantine:

...and then made our way into the Forum, for which we also used the Rick Steves audioguide.

You enter the Forum by walking up the Via Sacra. It was just crazy to think that Caesar walked these same cobblestones.
 The audioguide was a little hard to follow and we were extremely jetlagged by this point, but one other thing I was excited to see was the Arch of Titus. Just before we left, I had read 2 Corinthians 2, where Paul says, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere" (v. 14). The ESV study note explains the phrase "triumphal procession" this way:
"Most interpreters see this as a reference to the lavish victory parades celebrated in Rome after great battles. God is depicted as the sovereign victor, with Christ as the general, leading the victory procession, and Paul as “captured” by Christ but now joyfully following him. Images of such parades are still visible in some ancient works of art, such as in the reliefs on the late-first-century Arch of Titus in Rome commemorating the emperor’s victory over Jerusalem."
Having just read that, it was incredible to walk up the Via Sacra (above) with Paul's words in mind, knowing that this was the very road where such victory parades occurred:
"...the via Sacra, the principal road of the Forum, dedicated to processions celebrating war victories, the 'Triumphs.' When a Roman general had killed at least 5,000 enemies and conquered new territories, he could then enter victoriously into the city, dressed in his armor. He would pass along the Via Sacra, under the triumphal arches, until he reached the Temple of Jove on Capitoline Hill." (source:
...and then to see the Arch of Titus with its depictions of the very images Paul had in mind as he wrote 2 Corinthians!

By now the sun was starting to set...
...and we got kicked out of the Forum, which closes at 7PM. Exhausted and hungry, we walked back to the neighborhood of our B&B for dinner. A place called Vecchia Roma was already on my list, so when our hosts recommended it, we knew we needed to try it. 

I'm going to back up and post a food overview of sorts tomorrow, I think, but for now I can show you the first two classic Roman dishes we tried. Our primo was bucatini all'amatriciana, which looks like basic spaghetti but has pieces of smoked guanciale (pork cheek) in it. YUM. It was also our first time eating bucatini, which is similar to spaghetti, but fatter and hollow--making it impossible to twirl on a fork! 

This restaurant is famous for mixing their amatriciana in a pecorino cheese wheel (top right):

For our secondo, we tried coda alla vaccinara: oxtail stew. We'd actually eaten oxtail once before here at home, so we knew what to expect, but it was delicious, even if it is a lot of work to find the bits of tender meat among all the bones and gristle.

With our first dinner in Rome a delicious success, we returned to the B&B and crashed.

Tomorrow: the Vatican!

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Terrazzo Dei Sogni: Our Accommodations in Rome

I have discovered Airbnb, and I am never going back.

I don’t remember where I first heard about it, but we decided to give it a try for our Italy trip. It’s a site where people all over the world can offer places to stay—options range from ordinary people renting out a spare room in their apartment, to traditional bed-and-breakfasts, to rental of an entire house with the owner not on site. (If you check it out, please contact me for a referral link--unfortunately I cannot post one here, but I can send you one personally that will give us both $20 credit toward a stay!)

The accommodations we found through Airbnb were, at least on screen, way nicer *and* way cheaper than the hotels our travel agent offered. We couldn’t really see a downside, so we booked and hoped for the best. And in Rome, did we ever get the best. Oh my goodness. We pretty much have nowhere to go but down from here!

Our expectations were high based on reviews and photos, and our hosts, Gianni and Maurina, were every bit as wonderful as we hoped! They are a retired couple, with kids just a bit older than us, and staying with them was a total delight.

I loved the way she threw her arms around him when I asked for a photo! How precious is that?!
As soon as we arrived, Gianni made us espresso and served us slices of cake, then sat down with a map to share information and recommendations. When we finished our cake, we continued chatting for a while and then he gave us a second snack, some sort of savory frittata.

Gianni and Maurina were so warm and friendly. One morning we sat and talked about their home in Sardinia, and they got out all kinds of photos and magazines to show us. Maurina is an English student, so she doesn’t speak a whole lot, but Gianni is fluent—we only had trouble understanding each other a couple of times—and Maurina so sweetly kept saying “Brava!” to my Italian :) We truly enjoyed getting to know them. It was so fun feeling like we were getting an authentic experience, staying in an Italian home.

The breakfasts. I still dream about them. Completely over the top and every bite was delicious.
Each day we'd have three different kinds of little panini, elaborate fruit pastries, fresh squeezed juice, and the best espresso and cappuccino we had in Italy.


It would have been a pleasure to eat them anywhere, but we got to enjoy them on a seventh-floor terrace overlooking a park!

Their listing on Airbnb is called “Terrazzo Dei Sogni,” which means “Terrace of Dreams”—not an overstatement.

As if all this were not enough, the location could not have been more convenient—half a block from a metro station, and within walking distance from Termini (the main train station, where we arrived via shuttle from the airport and where we caught a train to Naples) and the Colosseum.

It was wonderful to experience Gianni and Maurina’s hospitality; we would stay with them again without question. Definitely book this place if you are going to Rome! You will not find better accommodations for a more reasonable price.

[And again--if you decide to sign up for Airbnb, leave your email address so I can send you a referral link! I signed up without one and wish I wouldn't have missed out on the free $20!]

Monday, October 05, 2015

Multitude Monday, Take 353

This fall has felt eerily just like a year ago: in the space of just a week or two, a brother-wedding and a "Broken + Beautiful" women's retreat!

Two weeks ago, we were in Ohio and Michigan for the wedding of Steve's younger brother. (Sadly I did not get any good pictures of the bride and groom, much less us *with* them...there were so very many professional pictures being taken that I did not want to ask them to smile for one more :P Swiped the one below off Facebook and am eagerly anticipating the pro shots!) Then this past weekend, I traveled to Cincinnati to speak at the women's retreat for New City Church. Both events provided countless opportunities to give thanks to God for His gifts. To name and number a few:

7542. handsome boys in pink shirts, so well-behaved on a long day

7543. their taking it very seriously when we told them to look out for Uncle Ben because he was NOT allowed to see Aunt Bridget before the wedding

7544. my in-laws' '65 Lincoln, the wedding car for all three brothers

7545. a new sister-in-law!

7546. cousins being silly and laughing together at the reception

7547. my own hubs, more handsome to me and more loved by me than on our own wedding day ten years ago
7548. the opportunity to dance some East Coast Swing with him
7549. kiddos watching the festivities and getting down on the dance floor
7550. Elijah's crazy dance moves (and the video I captured that he'll hate me for in about ten years)
7551. Jude dancing with his new aunt

7552. reunion with an old friend I hadn't seen in eleven years

7553. her inviting me to speak at her church's women's retreat
7554. sweet times of worship in the car by myself on the way there and back
7555. the way He restored my joy and renewed my own soul as I spoke to the women
7556. eyes to see His beauty in the women, opportunities to hear their stories
7557. the lovely ladies I got to be in a discussion group with

7558. dear friends lifting me up in prayer as I prepared and spoke
7559. the privilege of being a vessel of truth and grace and hope, speaking life-giving words and pointing women to Jesus
7560. deep conversation with my friend after the retreat
7561. her hospitality
7562. getting to worship at their wonderful church on Sunday morning

7563. the delight of surprising a friend on my way home
7564. an afternoon walk in the sunshine, catching up with her
7565. her persevering, confident trust in His love and sovereignty and provision through trials
7566. reunion with my guys on Sunday night
7567. safety over 1500+ miles on the road
7568. powerful reminders of His love for me

31 Days of Public Failure

So...nothing like declaring you're going to write on your blog every day for the next 31 days...and falling on your face on day three.

The timing of October's 31 Days challenge was rotten this year. We got home at 9PM on a Sunday night after 16 days out of town and had to hit the ground running Monday morning. I had just four days to catch up on laundry, juggle the usual household tasks, attend soccer games, deal with extra makeup homework, take a sick kid to the doctor, and finish preparing for a speaking engagement. Then I hit the road again on Friday for a women's retreat. Whew!

Because I was going to be gone all weekend, I needed to have my first four posts written and scheduled to publish before Friday morning. The truth is, I *could* have gotten this done if I'd managed my time better Monday through Thursday. Story of my life.

Even though I didn't have it all done before I left, I still went ahead and published the first two, holding out hope that I could finish up day 3 while I was gone and maybe get day 4 thrown together late Sunday night after I got home.

Ha. Hahahaha.

Again, I probably *could* have made even this happen, but when it got right down to it, other choices were wiser to make: deep conversation into the late night with an old friend. Being present with my family after a weekend away from them. Sleep.

So once again real life takes precedence over blogging, and I'm sort of #sorrynotsorry. I want to be a woman whose word means something, so I hate saying I'm going to do something and not following through. I also hate my ongoing failures to make wise choices about how I use my time. For those reasons, I'm frustrated to have dropped the ball.

On the other hand, my failure was in the end due in part to wise choices made. It's not like I let anyone down personally by not blogging (it's more like no one noticed or cared). And the reality is, it's good for me to fail publicly. It's good for me to be humbled, and it's good for others to see that I don't have it all together.

Among other things my friend and I discussed on Saturday night, she shared how knowing me exclusively through my blog for the last decade (after knowing me in real life when we were in high school and college) had led her to think maybe I was some sort of ultra-wise spiritual superstar (that's my summary, not her words--I can't remember how she actually put it). Thankfully a couple of days spent with me in the flesh set her straight :P

It's easy to forget that when we read blogs and Facebook/Instagram feeds, we are only getting a narrow slice of someone's life (especially when that someone blogs as infrequently as I do). No matter how much I try to be genuine and authentic, you just don't see the whole picture. This is something I want to be aware of and careful about. I don't want to craft some sort of misleading online persona; I want my writing voice to ring true, to sound like the real me in real life. At the same time, it's the nature of the beast--and, it's also worth remembering that everyone doesn't need to see everyone else's tender and vulnerable spots. There are parts of my heart and my life that are precious and private, things that I do not put here for everyone not because I am hiding, but because they are reserved for those closest to me, those who are invested in my heart and my life.

All that to say, if you are also reading along and have ever been tempted to think highly of me--by all means, let me set you straight on that immediately. I am broken. I am a mess. I can't even make it to day 3 of a 31-day writing challenge :)

I'm still going to come back to the 31 Days of Italy thing. I have lots and lots of stories and photos to share, and it will do me some good to get those down while they're still fresh. So, look for it starting back up tomorrow.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Italy Itinerary and Travel Tips

We settled on a loose itinerary for our trip relatively quickly: three nights in Rome, three nights in the Naples area (including Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast), and four nights in Florence. But before we could have fun in Italy, we had to take care of a thousand details, from passports to child care (praise the Lord for awesome grandparents!) to train tickets to comfy shoes. We booked everything ourselves, which means I spent countless hours reading reviews, shopping online, perusing guidebooks and studying maps. Today I’m settling into my “31 Days of Italy” series by sharing some resources and advice I found helpful—some specific to Italy, some applicable to all travelers.

Language Learning
I’ve been a language geek as long as I can remember, so I definitely wanted to try and pick up a little Italian before we left. The Duolingo app was a fun way to learn some basics. I only wish I’d started six months sooner! Even though I wasn’t anywhere near even proficient enough for basic conversation, I had learned enough to get a sense of how the language worked and be able to guess at the gist of signs or written instructions. Italian is way easier to learn to speak than other languages, because the pronunciation follows rigid rules. And because Italian isn’t spoken anywhere but in Italy, the Italians recognize that foreigners don’t really have a reason to learn it (unlike more widely spoken Spanish or French, for example). So they tend to be gracious with people who attempt to speak it when visiting.

I would have loved to be fluent, but I had to rely on Google Translate a lot, be willing to look/sound stupid, and give thanks that most Italians speak English far better than I speak Italian. Still, it was fun to try, and one of my favorite things was when people would say “Brava!’ when I understood a word or managed to produce an appropriate phrase. (You definitely need the Google Translate app, by the way--it is crazy amazing and helpful!)

Keeping in Touch Back Home
With little kids back home, being able to communicate internationally was critical for us. My understanding is that AT&T will provide cellular service internationally, but we use Ting (and, incidentally, we spoke with AT&T users in Italy who said their service was awful). So we contacted Ting to unlock our phones for international use, and then we bought SIM cards from Lycamobile once we arrived in Italy. We had a bit of trouble finding a place that sold them (the train station was supposed to have them, but we couldn’t locate any vendors), and getting service switched over took up more time than we anticipated, but in the end it was well worth the hassle. For roughly €40, we had 2GB of data and the ability to make calls from one of the phones. This gave us new Italian phone numbers, so calling the U.S. would have been expensive (and it would have been expensive for our families to call us), but with free wifi at all the places we stayed, it was easy to use FaceTime or Skype to talk with the boys.

For frequent communication with my mom, I used WhatsApp, which enabled us to send messages and photos back and forth, but using data/wifi instead of texting. This was a great way to keep in touch. I’m so thankful to be traveling in the age of technology that makes being away from your kids so much more manageable!

Portable Battery
No way could my iPhone battery stand up to the heavy usage of photos, maps, texting back home, looking up restaurant reviews, and listening to audioguides for an entire day. Buying a portable battery for recharging while we were out was essential. This one worked really well.

Airfare and Train Tickets
A few months before we bought our plane tickets, I ran across this article with tips on getting the best fares. Following some of these (searching incognito; using Google Flights and Skyscanner rather than Expedia) enabled us to find cheaper tickets than our travel agent could come up with.

Between cities, we traveled via high-speed train. This was a comfortable and convenient (and quick!) way to travel and worked out really well. We bought our tickets ahead of time and spent only $128 total on tickets from Rome to Naples and from Naples to Florence.

City Passes
Each of the cities we visited—Rome, Naples, and Florence—has a city pass, where you buy one card and get free or reduced admission to most major sights plus free access to public transportation.

The Firenze Card is the best, but also the most expensive: €72 gets you admission to every major museum and attraction for 72 hours, and you will thank yourself every time you bypass the long line and walk through a priority entrance for cardholders. The most popular museums require specific time reservations, but not if you have the Firenze Card, so it was really nice not to have to decide ahead of time when we wanted to visit the Uffizi or the Accademia (we ended up changing our planned times to visit both). It’s also supposed to get you free wifi citywide, but that was pretty spotty. One thing to note: if you plan a day trip out of Florence, you’ll want to make sure that doesn’t fall into the middle of your 72 hours. We booked our Chianti tour on Monday because many of the museums are closed on Mondays, but then our cards expired in the early afternoon on our last day, and we would easily have had time to use them for one or two more sights.

The Roma Pass and the Campania (Naples/Pompeii area) Artecard are cheaper, but the benefits aren’t as great. They say that the first two sights are free and the rest are 50% off, but in reality, some of the major sites (Pompeii, for example) still charge you a reduced rate even if it’s one of your first two. So it was more like “reduced admission and skip the line” for the sights, plus the convenience using the card for mass transit. I don’t honestly know if these two cards really saved us much money, but they definitely saved us hassle and waiting in lines.

Travel Planning Websites 
Reid's Italy provided a great starting point for coming up with an itinerary. He has helpful posts that lay out exactly what he would do (down to the restaurants) with two and a half days in Rome, or three days in Florence, or whatever. He also has tons of other recommendations I used and learned a lot from.

Viator has every kind of tour you can imagine—private, small group, within-the-city, day-trip-out-of-the-city. (If I were going on a cruise, I would book my excursions through them, as I have heard that cruise lines lose money on your room and make it back through exorbitant markup on the excursions, among other things.) We booked our Taste of Chianti wine and food tasting tour through Viator and can’t say enough about how great it was.

Napoli Unplugged was helpful for our time in the south, especially in looking up transportation information.

Italylogue was also a wealth of information on all kinds of topics.

Trip Advisor proved very informative both in its reviews and in the forums where fellow travelers give advice to common questions. It was through this site that I found out about the tour guide who led our Amalfi Coast hike, and we loved her.

Pack Light
We didn't go quite as radical as Rick Steves requires, but still, I was proud of how light we traveled. I have never packed so little, and we really could have packed less. This is all the luggage we took for two people for ten days in Italy: large suitcase, small carry-on, backpack for a computer, and my purse/camera bag.

Washing out clothes in the sink was a pain, but not as much of a pain as lugging a suitcase up to a fourth-floor walkup (our B&B in Florence), or dragging it for a kilometer on cobblestones, or pushing another carryon through a crowded train station and onto the metro at rush hour. Even with getting sweaty every day and not being able to wear clothes twice like I anticipated (it was around 90*F every day in Rome and Naples), I still didn’t really need quite as many clothes as I took. I would definitely recommend following this tip, though, which I didn’t and regretted: buy a Chinese jumprope and use it as a clothesline. We had a little trouble finding space to hang wet clothes.

Logistics aside, now the fun starts. Tomorrow: Rome, starting with "I've discovered Airbnb and I'm never going back"!