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Secret Hotels of Rome (From $75!)

By The Budget Travel Editors
October 27, 2015
Colosseum at night.
Lonely Planet
Here's your chance to be the ultimate Italy insider, with gorgeously affordable, off-the-beaten-path lodgings just steps from some of the Eternal City's hottest attractions and tastiest restaurants.

CASA DI SANTA FRANCESCA ROMANA

Enjoy an elegant stay on the cobblestoned Roman street of your dreams.

If you prefer lodgings with a little history, this fine hotel is named for the saint credited with performing miracles here in the 15th century. A decidedly modern miracle is that this place, situated in the charming Trastevere district near upscale shops, dining, and the legendary Porta Portese Flea Market, comes without sticker shock. Enjoy your complimentary breakfast amid the orange trees of the interior courtyard and pay a visit to the beautiful little chapel. When you’re ready to explore the neighborhood and beyond, ask the friendly staff for their tips (Via dei Vascellari 61, from about $122 per night).

MUST-SEE: Movie buffs will get a kick out of the Bocca della Verità, featured in Roman Holiday, a short walk from the hotel. Then take off across the Tiber to Palatine Hill (the Park Avenue of ancient Rome), where you can explore the ruins of a stadium and imperial palace and take the panorama of the Eternal City, including the Forum and Colosseum. For discounts and shorter lines at museums and archaeological attractions, invest in a Roma Pass (from about $31).

MANGIA: Da Lucia offers a reliable menu of pastas and meat dishes, but its antipasti, like cheese and honey or anchovies with lemon juice, are the real stars (Vicolo del Mattonato 2B, 011-39/06-580-3601).

SEVEN KINGS RELAIS

Revel in midcentury-modern style at a great price just steps from the “Steps.”

While some people come to Italy to revel in the ancient, the proprietors of Seven Kings Relais are more interested in the recent past. The hotel wears its fashion sense proudly, with 1960s details like floral wallpaper, a baroque-style sofa done up in pink, and a contemporary espresso bar right in the lobby. They’re also more than happy to dispense tips on navigating the local Metro stops and bus routes, the 15-minute walk to the Spanish Steps, and where to indulge your shopping urges (Via XX Settembre 58A, from about $75 per night).

MUST-SEE: The Piazza di Spagna, named for the nearby Spanish Embassy, is the base of the gorgeous 1725 staircase affectionately known as the Spanish Steps. Once you get over the “pinch me” moment of seeing the steps for real, check out the fountain said to be designed by Bernini’s dad.

MANGIA: The Spanish Steps area is super-popular, and it’s a relief to know that Pizzeria Leoncino is not only nearby but is also, unlike many Rome pizzerias, open for lunch. Elizabeth Minchilli, author of Eating Rome and the app Eat Italy, recommends Leoncino’s pizza with onion, beans, and sausage (Via del Leonci- no 28, 011-39/06-686-7757).

RELAIS PALAZZO TAVERNA

Betcha never thought a converted stable could look this beautiful.

The 10-room Relais Palazzo Taverna used to be stables dating back to the 15th century. Their conversion into a hotel is the loving work of a family of art lovers that includes a Venetian art expert from Christie’s. When you’re not exploring nearby Piazza Navona and other Roman delights, savor the dramatic black-and-white damask wallpaper from England and the Japanese printed paper, not to mention the massive 500-year-old beams original to the stables. You’ll be just off a street lined with antiques stores that leads straight to the piazza... if you can drag yourself away from the pastries and cappuccino delivered right to your door each morning (Via dei Gabrielli 92, from about $105 per night).

MUST-SEE: Ogle Bernini’s stunning Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in nearby Piazza Navona, where a few cheeky tourists famously attempted some late-night bathing this past summer.

MANGIA: Fill up on hearty servings of pasta tossed with eggplant, tomato, and garlic at Da Tonino al Governo Vecchio (Via del Governo Vecchio 18–19, 011-39/333-587-0779).

SUITE ORIANI

Psst! Want to sleep in a villa in one of Rome’s poshest quarters?

Yes, the streets are lined with embassies and mansions, but inside the 1929 Art Nouveau villa at No. 92 Via Barnaba Oriani, you’ll find five rooms filled with antiques like Tiffany-style glass lamps and ornate chairs that can be all yours for a song. Oh, and how about your own balcony overlooking private gardens and a towering cedar of Lebanon tree? (That’s in the Orchidea Room.) In warm weather, a generous breakfast spread of meats and cheeses, homemade jams, yogurt, and fresh fruit is served in the garden’s umbrella-shaded outdoor living room (Via Barnaba Oriani 92, from about $129 per night).

MUST-SEE: Before you take off to drink in the old city, you’ve got to go for a hand-in-hand stroll through jaw-dropping Villa Borghese, Rome’s most famous park, and check out the nearby Accademia di Santa Cecilia, housed in Renzo Piano’s ultra-modern Parco Della Musica.

MANGIA: La Pariolina offers an array of fritti and pizzas heartily recommended by Oriani’s proprietors (Viale dei Parioli 93).

MECENATE ROOMS

Live like a local in your own chic apartment.

Sure, you may be one of the 30 million travelers who descend upon Rome each year, but that doesn’t mean you have to live like a tourist. Your lodgings are an apartment (No. 79) in a quiet part of town that’s just a five-minute walk to the Colosseum. Once inside the circa-1900 building’s luxurious wood-and-brass doors, you’ll be warmly welcomed to views of the iconic arena, coupons for breakfast at local cafés, and one of four surprisingly spacious rooms (Via Mecenate 79, from about $75 per night).

MUST-SEE: Many visitors find the Colosseum to be the most exciting attraction in Rome. Even if you find the arena’s dark past a bit of a buzzkill, it’s an undeniably impressive sight. It once held 50,000 bloodthirsty spectators and was, of course, the place where Roman gladiators fought wild animals and one another.

MANGIA: Taverna Romana, in the Monti district near the Colosseum, will have a line. You’ll have to wait about 20 minutes to get a table. A heaping bowl of rigatoni with melted pecorino makes it totally worth it (Via della Madonna dei Monti 79, 011-39/06-474-5325).

LE STANZE DI ORAZIO

Fine art is on view inside the hotel and just down the street.

Just 10 blocks from the Vatican, this five-room hotel was launched in 2011 by a proprietor with a passion for art history. Good taste is on display everywhere you look, from the Philippe Starck lamps to the lovely striped fabrics for the curtains to the original floor tiles. Ask for personalized itineraries and hand-drawn maps, and be prepared to be treated like family—in a good way (Via Orazio 3, from about $85 per night).

MUST-SEE: Walk to the Vatican Museums and get lost for hours, or days, in their immense art collections. Buy your tickets in advance to avoid long lines, and remember that the museums are closed most Sundays but offer free admission on the last Sunday of each month from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

MANGIA: Pizzarium, near the Vatican, may be the most famous pizzeria in Italy, and Minchilli recommends it (Via della Meloria 43 [near Vatican, metro Cipro], 011-39/06-397-45416).

TORRETTA DE’ MASSIMI

Your country estate is waiting in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of the city.

Arriving here might make you think you’re dreaming. The 12th-century tower—which has been transformed into a suite of rooms spread over four floors, with a kitchen and a living room at the bottom and two bedrooms at the top—looks too much like a fable to be true. The fact that a prince, and a very charming one at that, hands over the keys adds to the surreal feel. But the place does exist, hidden within 350 acres of park-like greenery in the humble La Pisana neighborhood of Rome’s southwestern fringes (Via della Pisana 600, from about $210 per night for a two-bed- room suite).

MUST-SEE: Spend time wandering the amazing grounds themselves, or take the 881 bus from the property to Rome’s historic center, near Campo de’ Fiori and the Vatican.

MANGIA: You can use the property’s kitchen to cook for yourself (grocery stores are a short walk away), ask the staff to prepare your meals, or, our favorite option, book on-site cooking classes. For a night out, nearby eatery Schiavi d’Abruzzo will pick you up and return you to the property after filling your plate with unforgettable pasta dishes and pizza (Via Di Bravetta 370).

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Inspiration

Hop on This Amtrak Flash Sale Now!

My favorite way to explore the Northeast (where I live and work) is by train. For my money, there’s a convenience, comfort, and, yeah, even romance to riding the rails. Some of the most delightful East Coast adventures I’ve had started out by boarding an Amtrak train in New York City’s Pennsylvania Station (which everbody here calls “Penn”) and riding down to Baltimore to visit my cousins, explore the Inner Harbor, the aquarium, and discover one of the tastiest Little Italy neighborhoods I’ve ever eaten in. (And, in case your wondering, my cousins frequently ride up to NYC for holiday window-shopping, skating in Bryant Park, and the other myriad possibilities my native city offers visitors.) Of course, I have to admit those memorable Baltimore trips may have been topped by my excursions down to Washington, D.C., a few hours’ down the coast from my home and a world apart in history, art, science, and food. (Budget Travelers already know how much I love D.C. for the wide array of free activities, including all the major museums, memorials, and historical sites.) So, I was pretty psyched to learn about Amtrak’s Northeast Regional 3-Day Sale. I can get from Midtown Manhattan to downtown Baltimore or D.C. for rates so low I had to do a double-take. The sale is on now through Thursday (October 29), and is valid for travel December 1 through 18, 2015. How low are we talking here? NYC to Baltimore from $39. NYC to D.C. from $43. These are rare deals and worth jumping on for a fall getaway that doesn’t involve traffic on I-95! Whether you share my love of train travel or just want to nab the most convenient and affordable way to get from “downtown to downtown,” as Amtrak puts it, I suggest you check out this sale before time runs out.

Inspiration

Eat Like a Local in Queens

Thanks to a few Michelin-starred restaurants and high-profile food markets like Smorgasburg Queens and LIC Flea & Food, the dining scene in Queens is finally getting more well-deserved attention. But this isn’t a borough that runs on what’s hip or trendy. Here, in one of the most diverse places on Earth, eating like a local is akin to traveling the world: a cultural experience in which you’ll encounter people and dishes from countries as far-flung as Nepal, Thailand, Colombia, and Greece. It’s about neighborhood stalwarts and local legends that support those neighborhoods where the melting pot has survived and thrived, beloved eateries long content to fly under the radar of the general New York City public, and newer restaurants that seamlessly fill a culinary need without fanfare or pretension. Want to eat Queens right? Here are 10 palate-expanding spots that’ll jump-start your sense of adventure and impress any borough resident worth his or her salt. Go forth and explore. Astoria Seafood Best known for its excellent Greek food, Astoria has no shortage of tavernas at which to get your saganaki fix. But for fresh fish prepared Mediterranean style, at dirt-cheap prices, you’ll want to head to Greek-owned market-cum-eatery Astoria Seafood. Start by choosing your meal from the displays of raw seafood on ice—whole branzino, sea bass, and red snapper; calamari and octopus; shrimp, scallops, lobster tails—then bring it to the counter for weighing, paying, and cooking: grilled in garlicky olive oil or breaded and fried. Add a Greek salad, some rice, and lemony potatoes, and you’ve got yourself a feast, simply prepared and absolutely delicious, that’ll set you back about $30 for two (the place is also BYOB). It’s a winning formula; there’s nearly always a wait for a table come dinnertime. Sure, you’ll be dining with plastic utensils under florescent lights in a well-worn space, but nobody among this convivial, diverse local crowd—which has been known to erupt in spontaneous dance—gives a damn. 3710 33rd St., Long Island City; 718-392-2680 Dhaulagiri Kitchen It’s appeared on Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern and is a popular stop on neighborhood food tours, but Dhaulagiri Kitchen, in the heart of Himalayan-heavy Jackson Heights, is so much of a hole-in-the-wall that it’s remained a strictly local favorite. Perhaps this is due to its easily missable exterior—the only signage is for Tawa Food Corp., the small roti bakery that shares its already-cramped space—and the extremely limited seating inside. No matter: The tiny Nepali eatery serves up wonderful, inexpensive regional food from Kathmandu, the chef-owner’s hometown, from momos (thick-skinned dumplings with various fillings) to sukuti (air-dried and stewed beef, buffalo, or goat jerky). But it’s the generous plates of thali—traditional rice platters with dhal, mustard greens, pickled vegs, fried bitter melon, roasted soybeans, and your choice of curry (from $9)—that best show off the complex range of flavors at play here: bitter, spicy, sour, earthy. If the food’s too fiery, arm yourself with just-cooked sel roti, a subtly sweet, deep-fried doughnut-like ring made from ground rice. Don’t forget to pick up some fresh roti and paratha to bring home. 37-38 72nd St., Jackson Heights; 718-877-7682 Plant Love House With stalwarts like Ayada and Chao Thai anchoring an ever-growing “Little Bangkok,” Elmhurst is ground zero for the city’s best Thai food. Since joining the scene last November, Plant Love House has quickly become a go-to for local Thais and the borough’s chowhounds, for good reason: The homestyle cooking, made by a Thai mom and her two daughters, specializes in spicy street food and the kind of Instagram-friendly desserts beloved by Bangkok’s youth—plus the overwhelming majority of dishes clock in under $10. The small, cheery restaurant’s eight signature dishes include the popular num tok, a fiery pork-blood noodle soup with pork balls, and yum khanom jeen, fermented rice noodles topped with crispy salmon; one of several can’t-miss desserts is the Plant Love toast, a thick, buttery square of bread topped with vanilla ice cream and bananas. This is not your run-of-the-mill Thai menu. In fact, it’s quite compact, meaning you can probably try every dish in just a few visits. (Trust us: You’ll want to.) 86-08 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst; 718-565-2010 New World Mall’s Food Court Flushing, Queens’ large and bustling Chinatown, has no shortage of outstanding Chinese (not to mention Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, even Indian) restaurants, but locals know the best way to experience the neighborhood’s sheer diversity of cheap East Asian eats is to hit up a food court in one of its several malls. They are each worth visiting for a few standout stalls, and the huge, modern, fluorescent-lit court at the basement level of the New World Mall is no exception. Start with some juicy, crispy-fried pork and leek potstickers, or guo tie, from the corner stall called Li Lanzhou Stretch Noodles/Shanxi Sliced Noodles, then move on to cold-skin noodles from Beijing Cuisine and hand-pulled noodle soup from Lanzhou Handmade, or perhaps Szechuan fried chicken, Taiwanese pork buns, and Japanese-style crepes from some of the other 32-plus vendors. It’s hard to go terribly wrong here. 136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, 718-353-0551 The Queens Kickshaw Since opening in 2011, The Queens Kickshaw, with its exposed brick walls and dangling Edison bulbs, has been a breath of fresh air amid the discount shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries of southeast Astoria. But it’s what’s on the menu that makes this an undying local favorite, and the kind of place where it’s all too easy to while away half your day. The husband-and-wife owners nail just about everything a city dweller needs: specialty coffee, craft beer, cider, wine, mead, and, well, fancy grilled cheeses (from $9). Beyond those signature sandwiches, the from-scratch seasonal cooking here is thoughtful and delicious; for summer, we love the watermelon- feta salad and excellent creamy sweet-corn farro risotto—and of course, homemade ice cream. 40-17 Broadway, Astoria; 718-777-0913 Uncle Zhou Here’s a secret: You needn’t travel to Flushing proper for top-notch Chinese food in Queens. Located in Elmhurst, this unassuming eatery specializes in food from Henan, the region known as the breadbasket of China thanks to its wheat production. At Uncle Zhou, diners gorge on handmade dumplings and wheat noodles prepared every which way: thick and knife-shaved with tomato and egg; skinny and hand-drawn, swimming in soups; threadlike and baked to a crisp atop a whole fish; broad and nestled amid the chile-studded “big tray of chicken.” Pro tip: Start with some of the cold appetizers, like vinegary ribbons of cucumber and wood-ear mushrooms, selected from under the counter in back, before moving on to the to-die-for steamed lamb dumplings. 83-29 Broadway, Elmhurst; 718-393-0888 Arepa Lady What started as a late-night, weekends-only street cart with a cultlike following is now a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Colombian Jackson Heights, where, despite a slew of press over the years, Arepa Lady remains as revered as ever. Maria Cano—the lady in question—still operates her legendary cart under the 7 train in warm months, but thanks to the cozy new space, run by her two sons, those buttery, cheese-filled griddled corn disks (from $5) are available to the masses seven days a week, at lunch and dinner. (The masses, it should be noted, lean toward a pretty local, regular crowd.) Try the arepa de queso, kneaded with mozzarella and topped with salty queso blanco, as well as the sweeter, golden-hued arepa de choclo, made with freshly ground corn and folded around more queso blanco and the grilled meat of your choice—and pair it with a blended Colombian juice, like guanabana (soursop) mixed with milk. 77-02AA Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights; 347-730-6124 Cannelle Patisserie The original location of this pastry and cake shop is hardly impressive: smack in the middle of a nondescript strip mall in East Elmhurst, a solid mile from the nearest subway. No matter—the place is packed every weekend with customers clued into the serious baking that goes on at Cannelle, courtesy of a Brittany native (now Queens resident) who was formerly the pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria New York hotel and his Sri Lankan partner. This is food for the people by the people, if exquisite French pastries and tarts can be such a thing. At one end of the spectrum are the buttery almond croissants, glistening peach tarts, and fine quiches; at the other, a glass case filled with gorgeous little treats, from napoleons and choux Chantilly (cream puffs) to red velvet mini cakes. You’ll stare dumbfounded at that case deciding which to order, but at $3-$4 apiece, it’s easy to try several (the bliss-inducing rectangles of praline crunch and refreshing lemon squares are always good bets). A second branch opened last year in Long Island City. 75-59 31st Ave., East Elmhurst; 718-565-6200  Tito Rad’s In Woodside, Queens, a.k.a. Little Manila, lies the ideal opportunity to explore Filipino food, itself an underrated, endlessly interesting cuisine. Newly expanded and remodeled, Tito Rad’s is a welcoming place to start—specifically with the chicharon bulaklak (deep-fried pork intestines), lumpia sariwa (fresh spring rolls), and an avocado shake. From there you might try the satisfying crispy pata, or pork knuckle; spicy laing (taro leaves with shrimp, pork, and hot peppers in coconut milk); delicious dinuguan (pork-blood stew); or inihaw na panga, a massive grilled tuna jaw. Entrees are generous (most are $8.95) and perfect for sharing among a large group, thus inviting an epic Filipino feast. Fear not if the large menu overwhelms with its exoticism: You can always ask the advice of a neighboring table, which is sure to have some Filipinos present. 49-10 Queens Blvd., Woodside; 718-205-7299 Rincon Criollo Just steps off the 7 train in the heart of Latin American Corona, this one-room Cuban restaurant opened its doors in 1976, sharing the same name as the Acosta family’s first restaurant in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba. Here you’ll find legit, homestyle Cuban comfort food in friendly quarters: croquetas and frituras de bacalao (cod fritters) in a tasty homemade mojo (garlic sauce); well-done traditional standards (from $10.95) like vaca frita, arroz con pollo, and rabo encendido (stewed oxtail); spot-on maduros (fried sweet plantains) and flan de coco (coconut flan). But regulars will urge you to examine the daily specials, for that’s where you’ll find the more interesting dishes, like Monday’s tamal en cazuela, a soupy pork-and-cornmeal casserole of sorts. Order off that menu and you’ll be one of la familia in no time. 40-09 Junction Blvd., Corona; 718-458-0236 This article was written by Laura Siciliano-Rosen, co-founder of food-travel website Eat Your World, a guide to regional foods and drinks in destinations around the globe, and a proud Queens resident since 2008.

Inspiration

Back to the Future Day Travel Deals

Today, the red-letter day of October 21, 2015, you're going to see some serious stuff in the travel world, from free DeLorean rides to 1985-era hotel prices, in honor of Back to the Future Day, the precise day that Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and Jennifer Parker zoom to in Back to the Future Part II—30 years after 1985. Yep, it's finally here! Read on for awesome travel deals from companies that are as geeky about BTTF as we are here at BT. (Nerd confession: I read the new book We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy last week on the beach in French Polynesia on my honeymoon.) Ride in a DeLorean for Free in NYC Select "McFly Mode" in the Lyft ride-requesting app in New York City's Manhattan borough today from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and you'll get a free ride in a DeLorean DMC-12. There's a 15-minute time limit, unfortunately; otherwise, we'd run all of our errands in it. The cars are being shipped into NYC from around the U.S., so fingers crossed the supply meets the heavy demand. Book a Cayman Islands Resort Stay from $85 Per Night Keep your eye on the clock (tower) for the Cayman Islands' 48-hour Back to the Future Day flash sale, which runs from midnight on October 21 through 11:59 p.m. on October 22. The islands are touting throwback deals on stays in the near future at resorts including Comfort Suites Seven Mile Beach (from $85 per night, Oct. 21–31, 2015), Jeff’s Guest Home (from $99 per night, Oct. 18–Nov. 7 and Nov. 14–Dec. 20, 2015), and Wyndham Reef Resort (all-inclusive, $241 per person per night, Jan. 1–Dec. 22, 2016). Watch the day unfold on the Cayman Islands' Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts as they do a BTTF-inspired takeover, featuring vintage Cayman Islands photos and trivia. Far-out! Get 1985 Pricing at U.S. Westgate Resorts, Starting at $29 Per Night in Las Vegas Until the stroke of midnight tonight, book 1985-era rates at Westgate Resorts with the chain's Back to 1985 promotion, good for stays through Feb. 29, 2016, at any of Westgate Resorts' 23 U.S. properties. Destinations include Orlando, Florida (from $64 per night); Park City, Utah (from $91 per night); and other U.S. vacation spots. The lowest rate: $29 per night at Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, perfect for re-enacting your very own slots-heavy Biffhorrific alternate universe from Back to the Future Part II. Just keep your eyes peeled for a crazy wild-eyed scientist or a kid who might show up asking about a certain sports almanac.

Inspiration

Secrets of Italy's Emilia Romagna Region

On this particular exploration we find ourselves in Modena, the balsamic vinegar capital of the world. Aceto balsamico is one of those quintessential Italian foodstuffs that originated in Emilia Romagna, along with prosciutto from Parma, the famous parmigiano reggiano cheese, and more kinds of salumi than you can count—like the prized, artisinal culatello of tiny Zibello. This region offers some of the best—and most filling—plates served anywhere. It’s a hot day as we walk through Modena’s Piazza Grande; the huge open town square is flanked by the imposing Duomo (cathedral) and its adjacent clock tower, the Torre Ghirlandina. Some welcome shade is to be found between the two edifices: We lean against the cool stone Porta della Pescheria doorway, with its ornate carvings of Zodiac-like calendar figures, Biblical depictions, Arthurian characters, and other fantastical scenes. We hear the sound of the bells tolling in the tower; they mingle with the voices of the congregation singing while taking communion inside the cathedral. This is one of those experiences that feel like a step back in time; indeed, the bells themselves are over 700 years old. Modena is small enough to wander effectively on foot, though good shoes are a must on the town’s many cobbled streets. We wander from the Piazza to the famous Mercato Albinelli, a huge covered marketplace with dozens of stalls where local food vendors and artisans ply their wares. You can’t ask for a better place to get all your shopping done, from fresh produce to local meats and cheeses to baked goods to oil, vinegar, salt and spices. Don’t miss stall #94, which sells a traditional cookie called “amaretti”—chewy, sweet cookies infused with almond essence. The smells are tantalizing; the temptation to try a bit of everything risks compromising your appetite for lunch. As always when eating in Emilia Romagna, pace yourself. Not far from the Tower we stumble upon La Gioja, the shop of glass artist Susanna Martini. Susanna was trained by the glass masters of Murano in Venice; she has applied her skills to creating a more modern art form. Glass jewelry is her specialty, and each piece is unique. Her shop displays shelves full of her wares right next to her cluttered workspace—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the goggled Susanna at work, and you’ll hear the sizzle of the glass melting under a white-hot flame. One of her best selling and simplest pieces is “una goccia di aceto”, a drop of vinegar—her homage to Modena’s life-blood, captured in glass as if frozen in mid-pour. We speak to Susanna and her husband for quite a while—which pays off when we tell them where we planned to eat lunch. “Oh, they’re closed for the summer,” they explain (in a charming mix of Italian and English), “but we’ll call and reserve you a table at this other place, you’ll love it.” The other place, it turns out, is a little trattoria down a small side street where tourists would never bother to venture: Ristorante Il Fantino, a very casual place filled with locals. There are only a few dishes available; everything is handmade and of a very high quality, in a light and cheery atmosphere. The walls are filled with food- and wine-themed art, which whetted our appetites while they made our dishes from scratch. A simple plate of tortelloni with butter and sage was delicate but rich; and the wine-soaked, falling-of-the-bone pork ribs were so delicious that we would have eaten them out of a bag in the street if they wanted us to. Happily, this was not necessary, so we were able to move on to a very artistic dessert, sfogliatelle (“pages” of crispy, flaky pastry) stacked with fresh sweet whipped cream in between and topped with a liqueur-soaked cherry. On our way out of Modena’s centro, we come to the Church of the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro (Saint Peter). After a walk through Modena’s narrow little streets, walking inside directly into this cavernous, cool space is a welcome change of pace. Its unusual art and architecture includes several depictions of fantasy figures like satyrs and giant seahorses. The monastic shop next door, Spezieria Monastica, sells products made by Benedictine monks: wine, liqueurs, herbal perfumes, soaps, tinctures, and teas. Just past this shop is an entrance to the local monks’ gardens, where they grow the herbs and other produce that they use to make their goods (as well as their dinners). We venture out of the city and drive south into the beautiful rolling hills of the Modenese countryside. We come to Vignola, a small but bustling town on the Panaro river dominated by its huge 12th-century castle. Access to the castle, which is free to enter, is generally unrestricted and totally unguided, giving visitors free reign to explore everything this remarkable site has to offer. Like most castles, there are displays of medieval weaponry, and furniture and artwork from throughout the ages. Several huge rooms are adorned with what looks like an early version of wallpaper; this is actually finely detailed fresco-work depicting various animals, resulting in names like the “Lion and Leopard Room” or the “Hound Room." In the upper stories of the fortress, a couple of the vertigo-inducing towers are open to climb freely. The ascent up the worn stone stairs raises the all the way to the topmost levels overlooking the entire town and river valley. Those who aren’t claustrophobic can also visit the dank and ominous prison rooms. Following the Panaro river south towards its source in the forested Apennines, we divert to the east and wind our way up to the little town of Zocca. Here, on an unassuming commercial street across from a tire shop, sits Osteria dal Cinon. Flowering vines and other plants envelop the front patio, creating a little refuge from the road. This excellent restaurant has been in the same family for generations, preparing old recipes sourced from the best local, organic producers. Their classic dish is anolini in brodo, little salty prosciutto-filled tortellini in a light broth. One of the occasional daily specialties is a chicken leg quarter, slow roasted for many hours and then finished in a hot oven. The result is a very crispy, crunchy skin encasing the deliciously juicy meat inside. Cinon offers several homemade liquori, such as walnut, peach, and orange, to quaff after your meal. Continuing south and then turning west, we climb up to the little mountaintop ski resort village of Sestola, a remote town in the steep foothills of the Apennine mountains. The lower village is largely a pedestrian-only zone, and from it one can hike the short but challenging footpath up to the old medieval fortress that overlooks the town and the entire surrounding countryside. While the crowds mill around below in the town, we find ourselves nearly alone in the castle. The current castle walls and structures date from the late 1500s, though the site was a military stronghold for some 800 years before that. The castle now houses several museum installations: The fascinating Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments; the Museum of Mountain Civilization; and a whole room devoted to Teresina Burchi, a Sestola native who became a hugely successful opera star in the early 1900s. The real display, though, is the fortress itself, especially the very scary but rewarding climb to the top of the big guard tower that commands a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountainsides. Now we retrace our steps, following the river back downstream towards Modena, and winding through the hills until we approach our stopping place for the evening—the Ristorante Corte di Ca’ Bosco. On a hillside overlooking the various farms and groves below, Ca’ Bosco offers clean and comfortable rooms at a good price; but the real attraction here is the restaurant. Many of the diners are locals; others have driven nearly an hour, from Modena and Bologna, to eat on the restaurant’s beautiful terraza. Owner Mirella makes delicious fresh pastas daily; her husband Andrea is locally famous as Ringo, “DJ della griglia” (dj of the grill). His meat dishes—local beef, sausage, chicken, and veal—are all cooked perfectly and with flair on an open-air wood grill. The grill smoke and cooking meat creates a light haze of tantalizing aroma that lingers throughout the evening. While he’s cooking our dinner, Ringo chats freely and jovially with his guests; the atmosphere is less like a restaurant and more like a barbecue at an old friend’s house. This entire exploration, from Modena to Sestola and back, covers really only a tiny portion of the extensive countryside of Emilia Romagna. The itinerary demonstrates, though, the breadth of experience, the richness of history and art and architecture—and of course the wide range of great food—that one finds when steering away from the big tourist attractions, venturing instead down the little roads. Read about these places and more great Emilia-Romagna locations in the first of our Little Roads Europe Travel Guide series: “Emilia-Romagna—A Personal Guide to Little-known Places Foodies Will Love”. 

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