Florence: Back with a report on eating and cooking
I'm back from Florence and eager to begin responding to the questions you posted before my trip. First off, Joe Routon asked about gelato, and readers Nancy and Christy chimed in to suggest Vivoli. While I agree Vivoli's a great choice, my vote goes to nearby Gelateria dei Neri (via dei Neri 26r), where the wide selection includes unusual flavors such as croccantino (a crunchy mix of caramel, almonds, and hazelnuts), pignolo (pine nut, available only in summertime), ricotta con figo (ricotta with figs), and a few soy milk-based products.
A friend who grew up in Florence steered me to Badiani, a five-minute walk from the soccer stadium. It's worth the trek! Badiani made its reputation with the one-of-a-kind, creamy Buontalenti flavor; chocoholics like me will be drawn instead to the dark, rich dolce vita, mixed with hazelnuts.
Joe also asked where locals go for ribollita, a hearty Tuscan bean soup (the name literally means "reboiled"). It's a staple on many restaurant menus in Florence, along with pappa al pomodoro, a bread-and-tomato soup. Da Sergio (piazza San Lorenzo, 8r, open for lunch only), Trattoria Mario, and Zaza are long-standing, reliable places to sample these soups. All are centrally located near San Lorenzo market, so brace yourself for some fellow tourists.
One of my favorite go-to restaurants in Florence—for classics and inventive dishes like fiochetti di pera—is Quattro Leoni in the Oltrarno. But I stuck with my goal of trying new places this time and wound up at Trattoria del Carmine, where I tried both soups and traditional crostini misti (toasted bread slices with toppings like liver pate). It's got an appealing location in the Oltrarno's Piazza del Carmine, complete with outdoor seating, and attracts mostly locals. But I came away feeling that the atmosphere was more memorable than the meal. I was more excited by Zeb Gastronomia, a combination food shop and trattoria that has racked up praise since opening in 2008.
Zeb plans to launch a cooking program, so Jennifer, who inquired about local classes, might want to follow up as her trip her family's April 2011 trip approaches. The restaurant and food shop Olio & Convivium hosts customizable cooking classes for groups of up to 12 (call Massimo, 011-39/055-265-7639), and we've previously recommended Toscana Mia, a school run by two sisters with locations in Florence and at a 13th-century villa in Chianti. Our recent column Trip Coach: Cooking Schools provides a sense of what to expect and the issues to consider before booking.
Check back for future posts about Florence's wine and aperitivo bars, advice for renting a car or an apartment, and fun stuff to do with kids and teens.
RELATED: Having trouble distinguishing crema from panna at the gelateria? We've got a handy guide to decoding gelato flavors and pizza toppings in Italy.
London: Giant mirrors land in Kensington Gardens
I'm not aware of ever having attained inner peace. But on Thursday I came close to doing so while viewing the four oversize, curving sculptures that for the past week or so have been drawing visitors to London's Kensington Gardens. The city's star artist, Anish Kapoor, has made the mirroresque artworks specifically for this royal corner of Hyde Park, with its sightlines pleasantly free of any skyscrapers. Kapoor is famous in the U.S. for his so-called "millennium bean," a glinting installation near Chicago's Grant Park. He cribbed that same "reflective object outdoors" concept for dreaming up these sculptures that he's put in the city's most central park. One of them is a curved reddish disk floating on a lake and reflecting the landscape, a bit like the famous painting within a painting by Rene Magritte. Another is bent like a funhouse mirror. A third is conical, like an upside down tornado. The most popular of the sculptures looks like a satellite dish large enough to contact Saturn. The mirror brings a reflection of the sky down to earth, placing an image of the clouds upside down and next to a lake that's home to several mute swans. Stare at the sculptures for a while, and you'll be surprised at the memories or ideas that pop into your head. I found myself thinking that the sculptures looked like sinister objects from outer space. Maybe they will one day play a frightening chord, like those shiny monoliths in 2001. But this installation is about inner peace. Hard for me to find, like I said. Go and find the giant mirrors and your own center of calm before March 13, when they come down (kapoorinkensington.org.uk, free).
London: Pop-up theater
Attention, American visitors to London who are paying high prices to see Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in the large West End theaters: Are you crazy? The locals are far more excited about pop-up theater performances all over town. Abandoned warehouses and after hours subway stations now double as stages. Shows are inventive and inexpensive. The trend began a year ago, when Kevin Spacey, who runs the city's Old Vic Theatre, discovered spooky tunnels under Waterloo subway station. He organized a spontaneous series of stage performances there by the theater group Punchdrunk. The shows were a hit, and it became cool to think outside the black box. This summer, Spacey and his Old Vic colleagues created a 160-seat theater in the tunnel, with Art Deco cinema seats and The Bunker bar. Visiting in December? Book now to see a tunnel staging of Cart Macabre, a co-production by Old Vic and Living Structures. It's been described as "a restless exploration of isolation and disorientation, an act of faith on the part of the audience." I admit that sounds a little weird. But tickets are only 14 pounds each! And think of the stories you'll have to tell when you get back home. (December 4 to 22, livingstructures.co.uk and oldvictheatre.com.) Pop-up theater performances won't have a familiar Phantom score, but don't let that weaken your resolve to try something new during your vacation. MORE LONDON POP-UP THEATER… Fly Theatre is reviving the workplace satire Contractions in an empty office complex in the prime shopping district of Oxford Street. Audience is limited in size to 40 people for each performance of the comedy, a kind of twist on The Office. 26-30 October 2010. contractionsplc.co.uk, £9. Theatre Souk performs in an abandoned building off the popular Bond Street. Through Friday Oct. 16, it's hosting a set of performances. Future line-up of shows to be announced soon. theatredelicatessen.co.uk, £7 INSIDER TIP: To hear about future shows in the Old Vic Tunnels, fire off an email to email@example.com with "mailing list" in the subject line. LODGING: Find affordable and stylish places to stay in Budget Travel's easy-search London hotel database.
Rome: Book soon for film festival tickets
Unlike celebrity-studded fests in Venice and Cannes, the International Rome Film Festival, which runs from October 28 to November 5, is a laid-back affair that's accessible to both locals and English-speaking visitors. You're more likely to see Romans munching on pizza outside one of the theaters than Angelina Jolie in oversized designer sunglasses. The fifth annual festival presents a diverse lineup of films such as Last Night directed and written by Massy Tadjedin and staring Keira Knightley and Eva Mendes; Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman's debut as producer, starring Kidman and Aaron Eckhart; and Oranges and Sunshine by Jim Loach. There is also the opportunity to watch Anita Ekberg splash around the Trevi Fountain on the big screen—a restored version of Federico Fellini's iconic film La Dolce Vita will be screened in honor of its 50 anniversary. Auditorium Parco della Musica—designed by world-famous architect Renzo Piano— is the primary event host and has on-site restaurants and gift shops. Tickets are priced from €3 ($4.15) to €23 ($32) and go on sale October 12. If you show up at the box office with a ticket from one of Rome's museum, you get a 10 percent discount. Get ticket details at romacinemafest.it. PREVIOUSLY A wry film from a Roman mama's boy
San Francisco: Decoding the new Clipper pass
San Francisco transit is switching over to a new reloadable plastic card called Clipper that works system-wide. You can use it on BART, MUNI trains and buses, as well as the East Bay's AC Transit, CalTrain, which goes to San Jose, and the ferries. You would think the one-card system would simplify things, but the transition is proving confusing. In fact, city workers are stationed around San Francisco to help commuters operate the new vending machines. There's even a YouTube how-to video. With the Clipper, you "tap" the card instead of sliding or inserting it (much like London's Oyster system). Currently, you can still pay cash when you hop on a MUNI bus or train on the street, but not in the underground stations. BART is also still taking the old tickets—but only for so long. Right now, the plastic card is free but eventually it will cost $5, on top of the regular fare. Luckily, for visitors there's a lesser-known, limited-use Muni Ticket good for 90 days that you can tap on the Clipper reader. You can buy these for 25 cents, and reload them at the underground Muni station vending machines pretty easily. The card works for unlimited rides over 90 minutes. Locals are still getting adjusted to the new system, but it is catching on fast, even with equipment hiccups and other issues. Though if you seem confused, don't worry—you'll blend right in. Get more details on the Clipper at the card's official website. MORE ON SAN FRANCISCO Trivia Quiz: 12 Things You Didn't Know About San Francisco Photos: 8 Perspectives on San Francisco San Francisco's Best Street Food