In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible. We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless. Bon Apetito
All of us slept a solid 2-3 hours on the drizzly drive to Rome with one little stop along the way and arriving about noon. The plan had been for the entire group to go to lunch at 1, then walking tour for 2 hours from 2:30, then “free time” til 7:30, then straight to our big farewell dinner before driving to the outskirts at 9:30 for a late check-in to the hotel. Yikes!
Five of us disembarked at the Vatican City walls with three headed straight to St Peter’s Square and Rick and I to a small café for a very light lunch and to await our tour guide. Turns out the three had the best of all worlds – managed to hit just the right time in the flow of the lines, into the Basilica and caught up with the rest of the group by 2:30 for their walking tour of ancient Rome.
We met our guide for a pre-arranged tour of the Vatican Museum on time. As it turned out, with all the closures due to the conclave, we wouldn’t see the Sistine Chapel . The Conclave preparations to determine the next Pope means we also can’t get the straight entrance into St. Paul’s Cathedral. To “make-up” for it, we got extra galleries in the Museum. About 2.5 hours into our incredibly detailed explanation of every tapestry and sculpture, fresco and archway, we sat down on a bench for the flip chart demonstration of what we “WOULD have seen” IF we could take you into the Sistine Chapel. Sigh. Meanwhile, the clouds were breaking, and the sun was making a wild stab at coming out. At the very end we learned they would not be able to take us into the Basilica and recommended if we really wanted to see it we should go to St Peters Square and stand in the long line. “If it is halfway around the circle, it’ll be about 1 hour”. NERTZ.
So, lemons from lemonade. We had been standing on hard marble getting positively creaky and opted to not continue standing in lines but to take our time walking across the river and joining our group at the new time of 7 PM. The Sistine Chapel and St. Paul’s Cathedral aren’t going anywhere and we will be back.
We passed an altercation with a priest calling the polizei to run a gypsy woman off from in front of the church – presumably before evening mass. That was entertaining. Dodged a tour-guide nun with a hoard of French-speaking teens with her umbrella shoved skyward literally waving the French flag. Crossed the Tiber just as work was letting out with a passel of trendy women and admiring the views even though the river was almost lime green and murky. Intentionally ducked into back alleys and through little courtyards on our way to a quaint little bistro for a café and apple tart.
Walked through Piazza Navona with multiple “starving artists” packing up their off-site produced prints just as it started to think about raining and as light was fading over the City. Dodged our way through puddles and distracted umbrellas into the Pantheon – starting to feel a little worn out but enjoying the freedom of being tour guide free.
Just as we were leaving the Pantheon with the open cupola built in the 12th c, it really decided to start dumping. It was only 6 PM and there we were in the wide-open Piazza Venezia in front of the massive Vittorio Emannuel Monument and it was pouring. We found the first pair of the group and learned the rest were shopping for children’s gladiator kits but knew where we all were. Whew. Thank goodness. It stopped raining long enough for us to catch a group pic in front of the monument before blessedly getting the bus with Paolo and Alex.
We proceeded to a delightful bistro – almost exactly where we were dropped off at noon, arriving at 7:30 PM for our big farewell dinner. And it truly was a great meal. Sorry to be saying goodbye to the first person – Daiana from Colavita left us at the end of dinner – and recognizing we would have a series of ciao bello’s in the next few hours.
Ristorante Mamma Venerina – near the Vatican walls closer to the Museum entrance than St Peter’s Square – is heartily recommended. (Incidentally, I don’t think any of the places we went to on the entire trip are pricey alternatives. Almost all were family-owned and small with incredible food and ready smiles.) Our final menu: Antipasti (cheese wedges and salami, prosciutto and chips), pizza margherita, thick spaghetti with a spicy arriabatta sauce, lamb chops with roasted potatoes, wilted chicory and arugula.
All followed by an absolutely over the top selection of desserts – a fine apple strudel, tiramisu, dark chocolate lave-type cake, whipped cream and sweet custard to pour over any and all. Whew! Three different wines – bianco, prosecco, and roso – and aperitifs of limoncello and Armagnac. I managed to not over-eat and was the more sober of the bunch as we poured ourselves back onto the bus for the half hour to the Sheraton Resort Parco de Medici Golf Resort with a most appreciated bathtub and big fluffy towels and good pillows!
We had laughed a lot at all our inside jokes Friday evening at dinner and toasted each other’s contributions to our great week. It was a trip of a lifetime and we greatly appreciate the hospitality of Olive Garden and Colavita making all the arrangements.
We hope the details can either help you armchair experience this culinary journey or inspire you to make it yourself.