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Italy, Part 2 – Florence and Assisi

The party continues in Florence, where we spent the last three marvelous days touring, singing, and (of course) eating and drinking. After our trip to Rome, we made a short visit to Assisi, where we had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Franciscan order and the Basilica of St. Francis. The walled city up on the side of the hill was charming and absolutely lovely, with breathtaking views, and I particularly enjoyed my walk around and chat with the fabulous Marsha, one of my very favorite of the Oak Hill UMC choir members on the trip.

Our uphill climbing in Assisi had contributed to a mighty appetite, so Eddie, our tour manager, scrounged up reservations for ten at one of his go-to spots in town, Trattoria Zà Zà, for some Florentine specialties. Turns out Eddie is a fellow lover of all things food and wine, and while I was slightly alarmed by the queue of tourists spilling out of the place, my fears were unfounded. The Pences (or “gli Penci”), Eddie, and a gaggle of the Bad Boys took wild cab rides through the narrow streets in the center of Florence to dine on what was probably the greatest meal of the trip.

Garrett and I spared no expense (or stomach space) and decided to split several dishes, focusing on local specialties. On the menu was gnocchi in gorgonzola cream sauce, finished with Tuscan truffles (a local delight), rigatoni with tomato, basil, and buffalo mozzarella sauce, sautéed porcini mushrooms (in season!), and the pièce de résistance, a gigantic bistecca in the Florentine style––t-bone from a local breed of cow, grilled extra hot and covered in charcoal ash before being turned, laced with salt and pepper, and served rare with lemon and potatoes.

The gnocchi was a particular hit for us, so much so that we were pretty stingy with letting people taste it! Gorgonzola and truffles are a match made in heaven, and the aroma of truffle was heavy in the air outside while we waited for our table (and drooled), so this dish really hit the spot. The mushrooms were tasty but kinda slimy, and the rigatoni a nice counterpoint to the heavier dishes, but the steak… WOW. This thing was gargantuan, with a fabulously seared bark and bright red center. I can see why it’s a Florentine classic, and so glad I got to try such a wonderful example of it.

Accompanying our dinner were exactly seven bottles of Italian red, which together constituted a fairly comprehensive tour of Tuscany (and hence sangiovese), with a brief foray into the Piedmont. Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino, Bolgheri (2 bottles), Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, and the interloper from the Piedmont, a liter bottle of ’13 Barolo. It’s just unfair how good the wine is here and how inexpensive. Our Amarone, my favorite bottle of the night, would easily run $200+ at a US restaurant, and we paid just 60 Euro. Each of us walked away from this sprawling culinary and oenophilic exercise in gluttony only 70 Euro poorer.

Drinks followed (naturally) in the cellars of a converted 12th Century Medici palace at a bar called Locale. The drinks were outstanding, if very pricey, and the location couldn’t be cooler. A cadre of the Bad Boys and some new recruits to our party circle, including the fabulous Marsha, would find ourselves back at Locale the next night to experience their primary bar area in the open air upstairs. A particular highlight was “Tea with the Queen,” a gin and Earl Grey cocktail served in authentic Italian antique china and split between Iain and myself.

Sightseeing highlights from our first full day in Florence included a harrowing climb up the 460+ stairs that take you to the top of the Duomo in the Florence Cathedral. The frescoes inside were absolutely magnificent, but it was the view at the top that made this experience worth the trembling legs and sweat-soaked shirt. 360 degrees of Tuscany from the highest building in the center of the city. Incredible, but I won’t be rushing to climb that many stairs again in that tight a space any time soon.

No visit to Florence is complete without a stop at the Accademia to see the David himself in his full glory. I even wore my pink David socks to celebrate, and we were treated to a special visit by none other than the great Stanley Tucci, who sat mere feet from me to also gaze up and admire David’s sculpted ass.

The other star of the Accademia, however, is the overlooked musical instrument collection which the Bad Boys had to sneak away to see, which houses a handful of Italian instruments from the 1400s onward, including the most magnificent Stradivari I’ve ever seen, a viola presented to the Medicis with mother of pearl inlay. Hint to the tour guide: take the music tour people to the musical instruments.

The Bad Boys have also adopted a few honorary members, and we’ve been privileged to hang out with Jen and her daughters Ali and McKenna (UT students) the last couple of nights, as well as happening upon our guide, Bruno, for bottle after bottle of Prosecco on a few occasions.

Our concert day in Florence was (initially) considerably more low-key. Dawson and I took a stroll to the city center about an hour early to snag some lunch after a restful morning. And afternoon. We wound up finding a posh spot for aperitivo, Procacci, just steps from our performance venue, where Dawson and I split a bottle of prosecco, some truffle and prosciutto finger sandwiches, and a presentation of oscetra caviar; we also discovered through deep and terrifying conversation, where the word “same!” was the most prolific, that we might be the same person 11 years apart.

A squad of Bad Boys joined Bruno for some pre-concert light dinner and another six bottles of white wine at Enoteca Bellini. A cheese and meat plate was served alongside crostinis of sundried tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and truffles, as well as taleggio, olive tapenade, and artichokes. Our concert was lovely and well received, and we got a good crowd just popping in from the street to hear us sing.

Our time in Florence was wrapped up with another five bottles of wine in the park shared between a subset of the Bad Boys feat. “Jenny from the block” and progeny, and a fortuitous stumble upon a block party of graduating students from local schools. Dawson and I danced our asses off to Ke$ha and some European EDM, and met a bunch of pretty dope girls who fawned over us and apparently thought there was “no way” I could be over 20 years old. I love Italy!

Today we are off to Venice, with a stopover in Verona. Tomorrow I'll give everyone a little crash course on Italian wines. Until then!

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