Italy is hands down my favorite country in Europe. The landscape is so vast with hundreds of miles of rocky coastline, rolling hills and vineyards, tall mountains that broach the sea, and turquoise blue waters that lap the shores of pebbled islands. You have glorious Rome, with it’s dirty streets and brilliant pizza, Florence with endless artistic gems, Milan with elegant cathedrals and a knack for fashion. Everywhere you look there are glistening fountains, gelaterias, and elegantly-tall domed basilicas. If you escape to the countryside, you will find some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. And let’s not overlook the abundant olive and lemon trees – all hail the home of pesto! There’s Lake Como with it’s mermaid-worthy blue hues. There’s ancient villages such as Cinque Terra and Positano, carved into the cliffsides along the sea. And there are wonders of ancient architecture and engineering such as the ruins of Pompei and the Colosseum. There always seems to be a surplus of sunshine in Italy, which is perhaps why this country produces some of the sweetest tomatoes in the world. I did not truly believe tomatoes were a fruit until I tried them warm and sun-kissed off of the vine in Italy. And I guess that leads me to the food. If you don’t like pizza, pasta, warm oven-baked bread, or gelato, we can’t be friends. But you’ll still manage to find something to eat in Italy – the freshest mozzarella, seafood caught that day, tiramisu, panna cotta, and a schmorgesborg of soft cured meats, such as prosciutto (ideally wrapped around cool melon) are just a few of the country’s specialties. If your mouth is not watering and your heart is not lusting after an idyllic Italian vacation, I have failed you as a writer! For me, Italy is on par with England, France, Belgium, or Spain. It’s a country I’ve been to before but will never tire of, and try to visit at least once a year. This year, I totally lucked out. Amie and I went to Cinque Terre right around my 29th birthday, Kai and I went to Trieste in the summer, and then I spent my 30th birthday (finally getting to the point of this post!) in Italy as well. When I hit three decades, I wanted to be in my favorite country with my favorite people. And so I selected the best of the bunch from Amsterdam and the US, booked a giant villa, mapped out an itinerary, and flew into Bologna to celebrate thirty years Italian style with all of my favorites.
There are two parts to my birthday in Italy – the city trip part in Bologna, and the country side story in Tuscany. But let’s go in chronological order and start with Bologna, where things were still relatively civil and a smaller group of friends from all over the world were just starting to assemble!
Jess and Andrew were my first friends to arrive. In fact, they got to Europe a week earlier, hung with me in Amsterdam for a bit, and then took a train to Belgium where they drank beer and ate sausages for a few days before flying to meet Kai and me in Bologna. We arrived at our Airbnb around 10pm, and really struggled to find a place to eat in Bologna later in the evening! Luckily even the shittiest pizzeria in Italy is divine (at least compared to American or Dutch standards) and so we luckily found a bar that served food late, ordered some red wine, and dug into some pizza!For housing, we shared the cutest little flat with one bedroom and a comfy fold out couch, which was located smack in the city center. I was awed by its charm, but ohh you just wait until post two in this birthday series when I show you our Tuscan villa . . . but more on that later!^^ This is the hallway leading outside from our Airbnb!So let me tell you a little bit about Bologna. It rained the whole time we were there, which I guess happens quite often, as the city was literally built for the wet weather. With almost 28 miles of porticoes spread throughout Bologna, one can stroll through the raining city for hours without ever encountering a drop of rain. What’s a portico you ask? Essentially it’s a really fancy covered porch with columns that support the structure, allowing pedestrians to stroll through the city, sheltered from the elements. Exploring Bologna in the rain was akin to exploring Maine on a snowy winter day – simply magical, and clearly how the city was intended to be enjoyed!Bologna is the 7th most populous city in Italy, and has a large student population (Bologna is home to the world’s oldest university, and a third of the city’s inhabitants are students!) So while Bologna boasts of Renaissance architecture, frescoed medieval and Romanesque churches, and unique Byzantine art, the city also has a younger, rougher edge, with graffiti spattered across old brick walls, colorful bike racks, underground concerts and expositions, and a plethora of trendy bars and restaurants serving everything from tacos to tagliatelle.Bologna is probably one of the most food-famous cities in Italy. It’s the home of bolognese sauce, which is a must if you’re in town, not to mention a major producer of the best cured meats in the country, such as prosciutto, mortadella and salami. Home to hundreds of trattorias, in Bologna you will find homemade Italian food for a bargain – a trattoria is slightly less fancy than your typical Italian ristorante, with casual service, no printed menus, and nondescript wine sold by the decanter – it is here you will find some of the most wonderful home cooked meals, with daily specials, ingredients from local suppliers, and food that is cooked with a whole-lotta love.
On day one we had lunch at Ristorante Clavature Clive T – a recommendation that came from an Italian friend who promised that here, we would find the best pasta in Italy. The meal, which we finished with chocolate cake and panna cotta, was divine, and is well worth a stop if you’re ever in Bologna. While I can’t accurately judge if this was the best pasta in all of Italy, enjoying a big bowl of bolognese on day one in Italy sure was a deliciously authentic experience. As the weather was a bit glum, we decided to hold up in a cocktail bar for the remainder of the afternoon. We found the Jukebox Cafe on accident, and while I wouldn’t recommend going to Bologna for the tacos, this haunt was one of my favorite stops of the trip! Jess, Andrew, Amie, Kai, and I spent the afternoon here, sipping spicy moscow mules as more friends from the birthday celebration group trickled into town!
By the end of the afternoon, there were about 10 of us in town, ready to enjoy 24 more hours of Bologna time before heading off to our Tuscan villa (more on this to come!) I don’t have many other photos from our afternoon, as spending a few hours in a cocktail bar hampered my DSLR manning-skills. That said, here’s a short summary of what happened: slightly sloshed, we tried to go bowling. We walked for 15 minutes in the misty rain only to rock up to a bowling alley that was now a strip club! Bowling fail!! Now slightly outside the city center, we wandered to the nearest watering hole (which just so happened to be a small, dodgy casino) and had some more cocktails before heading to my restaurant for dinner.
Why Ali, what do you mean by ‘my restaurant?’
A friend had told me that Osteria al 15 had OUTSTANDING Italian food – say no more, I was sold. We made a reservation for 10 people and rocked up hungry. However, when we arrived, I discovered that every inch of the restaurant was covered in owl memorabilia. To say I am an own person would be a vast understatement. I will most likely be arrested someday because I am hoarding one hundred pet owls in my big old Maine barn. No need to panic as I do not yet have any illegal pet owls (or a big Maine barn for that matter), but at times I wish I were Harry Potter simply so I could have a Snowy Owl named Hedwig. I would take Hedwig over magical powers or Ron and Hermione any day. Also, my birthday just so happens to be on the 15th – this menu (and entire restaurant for that sake!) were clearly made just for me ;)The meal, although slightly blurry, was fantastic. If you decide to go, make a reservation. It’s s small space but worth a bit of extra planning. Ask to share several pasta dishes family style – they will bring several big pasta plates and small personal dishes so you can try a bit of everything. The vegetable lasagna was my favorite, and the tortellini en brodo was a close second.
And the end of the meal our plates were cleared, and we were ready for a good night’s sleep and out Tuscan adventure to begin!More Italian adventures to come :)