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June 2018

What are the best wines in Tuscany?

By | 2018-06-12T05:45:34+00:00 June 12th, 2018|Brunello di Montalcino, Feature, Features, Tuscany, Wine|

What are the best wines in Tuscany?

Italy is known for producing a number of quality wines, and this is especially true of Tuscany. Sangiovese grapes, with their fruity and aromatic aura, are the foundation of Tuscan winemaking. Tuscany’s hilly terrain and warm Mediterranean climate prove beneficial for the growth of these grapes, meaning that Tuscany has no shortage of delicious wine. Whether you desire a journey to experience Tuscany’s best wines or you are simply curious as to what they consist of, here’s a rundown of the best that Tuscany has to offer!

Without a doubt, Chianti is one of the best known and loved wines to come out of Tuscany. Chianti wines are made within the Chianti region of Tuscany, and while they vary in composition, some common traits that are generally shared among them include a dry character, a bright, cherry-like aroma and flavor, and a satisfying level of acidity. Like many Italian wines, Chianti tastes excellent with food. More specifically, it pairs well with many meat dishes (an example being the legendary Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or T-bone steak) and dishes containing red sauce. Chiantis, like many Tuscan wines, are primarily made from the Sangiovese grape.

Another delicious wine originating in Tuscany is Brunello di Montalcino. Known as one of the most rare and expensive wines to come out of Italy, Brunello di Montalcino is grown in vineyards surrounding the town of Montalcino, about 50 miles south of Florence. As per governmental regulations, Brunello di Montalcino must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes. What separates this wine from others made of Sangiovese grapes, however, is the conditions in which the grapes are grown. Montalcino’s climate and altitude are such that the grapes ripen more fully than anywhere else in Tuscany, giving the wine a distinctly unique profile. Brunello di Montalcino retains a fruity character but has darker traits than Chianti, with notes of blackberry, chocolate, and leather, among other things. Like Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino has a high level of acidity, which makes it a terrific wine to pair with food (especially grilled meats).

So while Montalcino and Chianti hold the distinction of being Tuscany’s two main Sangiovese variants, Tuscany is also home to the “Super Tuscans.”  What, exactly, have the super Tuscans done to earn the title of “Super?” While nobody knows for sure where the name originated, Super Tuscans are unique from other Tuscan wine in that they don’t adhere to the strict regulations of the Italian government’s classification system. This allows winemakers to create red blends with non-indigenous grapes, resulting in more inventive, creative and delicious wines. Some super Tuscans retain the use of Sangiovese grapes, whereas others may be made solely from Merlot or a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah; no matter what, though, Super Tuscans all share the tendency to have big, bold flavors and a high level of desirability.

The scope of winemaking in Tuscany is quite vast—some other varieties of Tuscan wine include Bolgheri, Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano all of which have the Italian government’s seal of approval. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, there’s a Tuscan wine out there to suit any personal taste. On our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, good food and good wine abound, so why not take the opportunity to sample the best wines in Tuscany with us at A Toast to Travel?

5 Packing Tips for Women

By | 2018-06-01T17:10:54+00:00 June 1st, 2018|Feature, Travel Tips, Tuscany, Women's Travel|

Packing tips for women
Packing tips for women-1
Packing tips for women travelers

5 Packing Tips for Women

Taking a vacation, while normally a great experience, can also be stressful if you are not adequately prepared. If you’d agree that travel is one of life’s most rewarding and exciting activities, (like we do at A Toast to Travel) then perhaps you’d also say that it comes at the cost of having to pack. Unless, of course, you’re one of the few people who seem to enjoy this step, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For most everyone else, though, packing may induce irritating feelings of dread, and if not done properly, it can cause further headaches during your travels. Here are a few packing tips for women that should serve to make any vacation experience easier and more enjoyable!

  1. Leave some room in your suitcase – Apart from making the process of hauling your bags a little less strenuous, this tip is particularly useful if you plan on doing a little shopping (which would be difficult to pass up if you were to visit, say, Florence, Italy).  If you find yourself having some difficulties with this, then perhaps this next tip will prove helpful…
  2. Wear your heaviest/clunkiest stuff on the airplane – This can do a couple of things for you. Either it will create more open space in your bag so that you may take home any purchases made on your trip, or it will allow you to load the bag up with smaller, less space-consuming articles of clothing. Bonus benefit – if you have a tendency to get cold, especially on airplanes, more layers will prove helpful!
  3. Keep your most important valuables out of your checked luggage – If you travel with any medicines, extremely sentimental objects, important documents, etc., it is in your best interests to keep them with you at all times. As much as we want to believe that our luggage will always be taken care of as best as possible by the airlines, mishaps do happen, and bags do get lost. So in the unlikely event that this happens to you, save yourself the headache of replacing the objects that matter most!
  4. Make sure you know exactly what’s in your carry on before you head to security – Airport security can and will be strict about adhering to the guidelines of carry on luggage. This means that if, for example, you’re trying to bring home a bottle of Italian wine, and you completely forgot you left it in your backpack, you’ll probably never get to enjoy that bottle of Italian wine unless you’re willing to exit the security line and check it in.
  5. Make sure all your liquids/gels/cosmetics are stored in accordance with security guidelines – This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, but there’s no way around it. Not only will adequate preparation for this save time at the security checkpoint, but it will also ensure that any expensive/valuable cosmetics you own won’t be tossed out!

Well, there you have it! Some of these might seem like common sense, but there’s nothing wrong with brushing up on them. Hopefully they can help make your next trip, whether it be our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience or something else entirely, a little less stressful and a lot more enjoyable.

May 2018

What is an Italian Piazza?

By | 2018-06-01T17:17:06+00:00 May 31st, 2018|Feature, Features, General, Informational, Travel Tips, Tuscany|

Piazza in Roma
Typical Piazza

What is an Italian Piazza?

A Central Aspect of Italian Life

If you were to embark on a tour of Italy, one of the first things you’d probably be struck by is the ubiquity of the Town Square, or “piazza” as they’re referred to in Italy. Italian piazzas are very open and welcoming spaces, surrounded by beautiful buildings. They are the hearts and life centers and of Italian towns and cities, swarming with residents going about their daily business or simply taking time to reflect, gather, and enjoy life. What is it about these piazzas, though, that makes them so special and alluring? Maybe it’s the idea of a central gathering space in which the citizens of a town can gather, or perhaps it’s the charm that they add to any city. They are a blend of history, architecture and life, all of which blend together seamlessly to create an important cultural phenomenon unlike any other.

Piazzas date back to the Ancient Romans, whose towns typically consisted of a grid pattern built around two main roads. The space where these roads intersected was considered sacred, so large, open spaces flanked by markets, civic buildings, and other various shops were constructed in these areas. This was the template for the piazzas to follow, and in fact, some of these original Roman piazzas are still in existence today! By the time of the Renaissance period, Italian piazzas had fully evolved. An example of this is Piazza Pio II, widely regarded as one of the finest iterations of the Renaissance urban ideal. Located in the Tuscan town of Pienza and built in the 15th century, Piazza Pio II is notable for its trapezoidal shape—a new idea at the time.

Despite the piazza’s distant origins, they remain an important part of Italian culture and identity. Their usefulness and efficiency cannot be ignored, and they manage to provide this while evoking a sense of community rooted in history. Unlike a fine painting or architecturally brilliant church, the piazza’s value doesn’t lie solely in its physical traits. Rather, the human activity within a piazza is an integral feature of the piazza itself. People are the finishing touch that ties every element of the piazza together, like cars on a roadway or candles on a birthday cake. Simply put, the piazza becomes whole when its form is fully utilized. Italians will enjoy their leisure time in the piazza while sitting at a cafe, browsing the markets that can be found within, and simply going about their lives while surrounded by the rich history of their people. It is truly a testament to the architects of these piazzas that they continue to be used as they were originally intended to this day, and this also speaks to the great pride Italians have in their history and heritage.

Part of living like a local in Italy means enjoying a town square, and on our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, you’ll have the opportunity to do just that—while being guided by locals—in Florence, as well as the beautiful Tuscan towns of Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and several others. In order to get the most out of an Italian vacation, one must delve into the cultural pillars of the country, and piazzas are an excellent starting point!

Experiencing a Beautiful Italian Summer

By | 2018-05-16T05:12:36+00:00 May 13th, 2018|Feature, hidden gems, Summer, Tuscany|

Summer in Tuscany
Panzanella

Experiencing a Beautiful Italian Summer

Summer is just around the corner, and for many people, that means it’s time for a vacation! Summer vacations in Italy, especially in Tuscany, can be full of many wonderful festivities and attractions; if you’re a fan of warm weather, you will love experiencing Tuscany’s stunning natural beauty. Tuscany is classified by its Mediterranean climate, with generally mild winters and nice, toasty summers. Due to the unique geography of the region, temperatures can vary widely based upon your location, with the coasts and valleys being generally warmer than hills and mountains. There’s no better time to enjoy the beautiful coasts, with gentle, refreshing sea breezes blowing in to contrast the warm summer air.

Apart from the joys of enjoying lovely Tuscan weather, summers in Tuscany come with another host of benefits. If you read our recent Tuscan food piece, you may recall that we mentioned Panzanella, a salad made of leftover bread and fresh, sun-ripened vegetables grown in the fertile Tuscan soil. It should come as no surprise that this is a terrific summer dish, so if you want to try it at its best, summertime is your best chance. It’s amazingly refreshing on a hot day! If the warm temperatures attract you to the coast, then you’ll find lots of wonderful seafood to dive into as well. And how awesome does a big scoop of authentic gelato sound for a chilly summer treat? Tuscan food is borne out of the finest resources available at any given time, and as a result, it complements the weather in ways that few other foods can.

While summer in Tuscany demonstrates itself to be a great time to enjoy seasonal dishes and the region’s natural beauty, it is also ideal for attending events and landmarks. Most of us would probably agree that a warm and pleasant day is the best time to go for a leisurely stroll; that’s enjoyable enough in its own right. But imagine doing so in the midst of some of the most well-preserved Renaissance architecture in existence! We know that warm weather brings people outside, and this will you give you the chance to observe the peak of human activity throughout the town squares and side streets of Tuscan cities and towns if you feel so inclined.  The chance to observe and explore the ways the citizens of a distant country interact and function throughout their daily lives is a valuable aspect of travel, and one could argue that it is key to fully understanding and appreciating a place. At A Toast to Travel, we believe an Italian vacation should allow you to fully immerse yourself in the culture so that you may experience how it feels to live like a local. And if you choose to embark on our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience in the summer, you’ll get the chance to experience everything that a Tuscan summer has to offer.

Experiencing Italian Cooking

By | 2018-05-03T05:58:00+00:00 May 3rd, 2018|Feature, food, hidden gems, Tuscany|

Experiencing Italian Cooking

For the many travelers who choose to embark on a tour of Italy, one of the commonly recognized highlights of the overall experience is the food. Tuscany, in particular, is home to a number of delicious specialties. Tuscan cuisine is known for its delightful simplicity which lets the individual ingredients speak for themselves, with bread, meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables being central to many dishes. Much like the rest of Italy, olive oil is an important staple in Tuscany, where it is typically made from Leccino, Moraiolo, and Frantoiano olives. The region is also known for traditional Florentine steaks, which come from the native Chianina and Maremmana cattle breeds that are found there. Apart from these fundamental elements of Tuscan cuisine, there are plenty of specific dishes there that are very much worth trying!

Throwing away stale bread is highly frowned upon, so instead, a salad called Panzanella is made. The bread is tossed in with Tuscan-grown cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, then is seasoned generously with salt, olive oil and vinegar. Not a bad way to make use of those leftovers, and it’s a lovely summer meal to boot! If you’re feeling more like enjoying some fresh Tuscan bread, however, you may try Fettunta. Fettunta is typically ordered at the start of a meal, and it consists of a freshly toasted slice of bread drizzled with delicious Tuscan olive oil, rubbed with garlic, and sprinkled with salt. These dishes are two examples of the many ways in which the people of Tuscany demonstrate their passion for bread.

Beyond that, there’s also a special affinity for soups in Tuscany. Papa al Pomodoro is a thick, rich tomato soup prepared with basil and other vegetables, then served with stale bread. (Again with the stale bread—they really know how to make the most of their food!) Another type of soup is ribollita, which is made with kale, cabbage, onions, beans, carrots, potatoes and a few other vegetables, as well as—you guessed it—leftover bread. If you’re not a fan of soup, that’s not an issue—there’s plenty more variety in Tuscan cuisine. For example, you may fancy trying tagliatelle al tartufo, a dish that consists of pasta smothered in a rich truffle sauce. Tuscany is fortunate enough to feature naturally-occuring black and white truffles, both of which are very rare, growing within its borders. So as a result, this decadent Tuscan staple is absolutely worth giving a try. As a matter of fact, when you tour Italy with A Toast to Travel, you’ll hunt truffles in the morning. Then, during our hands-on cooking in Tuscany experience, Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun, you’ll learn to make fresh, Tuscan truffle sauce for our fresh pasta.

Potatoes are an important ingredient in Tuscany as well, so the wonderful potato tortelli should not be ignored. It consists of ravioli-like pasta stuffed with potatoes and smothered in a rich game meat sauce. And of course there’s the aforementioned Florentine steak, or Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which cannot be missed. It’s a large t-bone steak typically weighing 3 to 4 pounds, and it’s so thick that it must be cooked on all sides! Once you’ve tried some of these meals, save room for dessert, because Tuscany is home to plenty of those as well. There’s the world-famous gelato, of course, and trying it is certainly a given. Ricciarelli, from Siena, are traditional biscuits made with an almond base as well as sugar, honey, and egg whites, and are typically consumed around Christmas.

The chance to sample some of these dishes (and many, many others) could be yours with the Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience! A Tuscan holiday simply would not be complete without the opportunity to indulge in the finest food offerings available, and because A Toast to Travel gives you the chance to live like a local, nothing will be glossed over. Italy is a wonderful, dynamic country, and we strive to give you the best Italian vacation experience possible!

April 2018

A Tour of Pisa – More Than Just a Leaning Tower

By | 2018-04-28T12:35:37+00:00 April 28th, 2018|Events, Feature, Features, General, hidden gems|

A Tour of Pisa – More Than Just a Leaning Tower

Pisa is yet another beautiful city located within central Italy’s Tuscany region, and no tour of Italy would be complete without a visit there. Situated on the river Arno just before it enters the Ligurian Sea, Pisa is perhaps best known for the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the most recognizable landmarks throughout the world. Built over the course of 200 years through the 12th to 14th centuries and standing tall at 183 feet from top to bottom, the tower is a wonderful attraction. Be ready to climb up a 300 step spiraling staircase in order to take in spectacular views at the top; if you’d prefer to admire the tower from the ground, though, there’s endless opportunities to take photos giving the illusion that you’re holding the tower up with one hand, which is almost a requirement for an Italian vacation. But beyond having a bit of silly fun, there’s much more that cements Pisa as a must-see Italian holiday destination.

Pisa is home to countless churches, many of which date from the Renaissance Period or earlier. Some of them include Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, which houses a bust made by Donatello; San Fredriano, which was built in 1061 and features a basilica interior along with a crucifix dating from the 12th century, among other things; and St. Sixtus, which was built in 1133 and is regarded as one of the most well-preserved Romanesque structures in town. If you harbor a deep appreciation of architecture and history, Pisa surely will not disappoint. And even if your interests generally track elsewhere, it’s difficult to not be blown away by the living history of the place.

Pisa’s rich collection of historic buildings and artifacts extends to its museums as well. For instance, there’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where you’ll find original sculptures crafted by the influential sculptors Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano. Another terrific museum to visit is Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo, which exhibits numerous historical pieces of science equipment, including a compass that likely belonged to Galileo Galilei.

Once you’ve taken in the rich history of Pisa and the plethora of incredible historical artifacts you’ll find there, you may take advantage of Pisa’s food and shopping offerings. Dwell among the locals and take a stroll through Piazza delle Vettovaglie, a 16th century town square where you’ll find numerous cafes, butchers, wine shops, and bakeries.  When the hunger you’ll inevitably develop from all your walking and sightseeing becomes your number one priority, stop by Il Crudo Panineria for a delicious panini, then finish it off with a cup of gelato at La Botegga del Gelato, located right in the center of the city. Or, if a slightly more upscale meal is in order, stop by Da Bruno for traditional Pisan cuisine in a trattoria setting.

Not to be overlooked and worth every moment spent there, Pisa is a fantastic conglomeration of Italian culture, heritage, and history. Come for the allure of its most famous landmarks, but stay for the wonderful treasures you’ll discover within its borders. With A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, a visit to Pisa is included for all the aforementioned reasons. You’ll be taken on a guided tour with  the locals, so no must-see attractions will be overlooked. Join us for a visit to Pisa, one of the many stops on our unforgettable, all-inclusive Italian vacation package!

Vacations in Italy and Gelato!

By | 2018-04-24T22:12:28+00:00 April 24th, 2018|Feature, food, hidden gems|

Vacations in Italy and Gelato!

When you ask someone what their favorite dessert is, you can usually expect something along the lines of cake or ice cream!  Ice cream is so popular in the United States that we even have that popular saying everyone shouts as a kid “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” It’s a sweet treat that cools us down in the summer, and fulfills our late night sweet tooth. However, if you asked asked an Italian what their favorite dessert was, ice cream probably wouldn’t be the response you’d get. Gelato is ice cream made the Italian way, and like pasta and pizza, it’s one of the foods Italy is famous for.

It’s said that the first forms of gelato date back to ancient Rome and Egypt, there are even examples of different forms of frozen treats being enjoyed in biblical times. These were by no means the creamy treat we’ve come know and love today. The first forms of modern gelato were created by a Florentine artist named Bernardo Buontalenti who served the first cold cream of made from milk, honey, and egg yolk to the Medici court in 1559. But it was spread from Italy to Europe by a Sicilian fisherman named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli (say that name ten times fast). He was the first individual who sold gelato to the public, opening a cafe in Paris in 1686 named “Cafe Procope.”

But what’s the difference between the ice cream and gelato? They’re both cold, delicious, and easily scoopable. So what makes gelato so much more popular than ice cream? One of the main differentiating factors between the two is that gelato contains a lower amount of fat content than ice cream. By Italian law, gelato must contain at least 3.5% of butterfat. Gelato’s fat content is not legally regulated in the United States, but ice cream is. In the US, ice cream must contain at least 10% butterfat. In order to have a lower percentage of fat, gelato uses more milk and less egg yolk, whereas ice cream uses more cream and yolk. This makes gelato a generally healthier alternative to ice cream!

Compared to ice cream, gelato is creamier, smoother, and denser. Unlike ice cream, which is churned hard and fast, causing it to be fluffier and lighter, gelato is churned much slower which erases air bubbles. This lack of air bubbles is what causes the creaminess and density, which is why gelato often ends up looking like a like an elastic putty in a tray before its touched or scooped for an eager customer.

Since it’s been over 330 years since Francesco opened his shop, gelato has spread all around the world, which is something worth celebrating. Entering its ninth year, the Gelato Festival is a European competition that “recognizes the best Italian and foreign gelato artisans and the flavours they create for the tour.” The festival, which starts in April and lasts through September, travels all over Italy and then spreads to other competitors in Europe.

If you’re interested in seeing authentic, Italian gelato first-hand, then our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience  is the perfect choice because it will take you on a visit to one of the oldest gelaterias in Italy. These Tuscany holidays allow our guests to live like locals and show you where to go in Italy.  Authentic gelato will definitely be a delectable treat you can indulge in during an experience with A Toast to Travel.

March 2018

Chicagoland Culinary Reviews Part 3

By | 2018-03-15T20:00:42+00:00 March 14th, 2018|Chicagoland Culinary Reviews, Feature, food|

This year A Toast to Travel is starting a new search, for the most authentic Italian experiences in the Chicagoland culinary world!

Part 3- Vinci

Vinci is the perfect place to stop for an evening meal. Located on the north side of Chicago the establishment is very inviting. The décor favors the color yellow with golden tones. The aesthetic brings you the feel of the Tuscan countryside without ever leaving the American Midwest. In fact, there is an effort being made to refurbish the interior with a more rustic design. The original tables are being replaced by all wood furniture. My eyes were drawn to the light fixtures, which have been designed to look like twigs that have been twisted into an ornate novelty. The walls are decorated with beautiful murals. As an artist, I was quite drawn to the line drawings of hands near the entrance. It appears to be drawn by charcoal, paying expert attention to line and form, and is quite beautiful. I was greeted by Mr. Richard Russo, the general manager at Vinci, this gentleman has been with the establishment for almost ten years. He states the familiar quality of staff; most stay longer than five years. That says something about the quality this company holds itself to, that even its employees keep coming back for more. In fact, most of Vinci’s business is found in their regular return clients.  Vinci has a significant fan base and local following.

We were treated to a full menu experience. Richard was most happy to answer any questions and make recommendations for the evening. We began with the Antipasti Vinci, which is a sample platter of salame, stewed calamari, zucchini scapece, pecorino cheese, and giardiniera.  Richard explained the delicious food on our sample platter as the dish was presented, while we drank delicious pinot grigio.   The stewed calamari was excellently prepared, easy to chew, and slightly salty. It was an experience I will never forget.

We enjoyed the dining atmosphere.  There was a group that sat next to us, regulars at Vinci, who had nothing but praise to share about the restaurant.  They were also leaving for their Italy vacations the next day.  Vinci, like A Toast to Travel’s wine and culinary experiences in Italy, offers guests a chance to live like a local and enjoy authentic Italian food and wine. A Toast to Travel’s all-inclusive experiences includes the opportunity of cooking in Tuscany as well as exploring the Tuscan countryside. A restaurant like Vinci is designed after our own heart offering their guests a vacation in Italy without going too far from home.

The main course, however, was its own trip.  We ordered our Secondi, the Chicken Saltimbocca and the Grilled Hen.  The Secondi were paired with a deep, full bodied red, Brunello di Montalcino.   Perfectly seasoned, the juicy, grilled hen was better than I could have imagined. I am a lover of chicken entrees, and as a picky eater, it can be hard for me to find a dish so mouthwatering. Vinci succeeded.  Not to neglect the Chicago Saltimbocca.  “Saltimbocca” means to jump in your mouth in Italian and with the generous, delicious prosciutto wrapped all around the chicken, it sure did.

We finished dinner with a slice of Tiramisu. The coffee taste was sweet and complementary.  The perfect Tiramisu to end the perfect evening.

Our evening with Vinci was excellent. Thank you to Richard Russo for his service and hospitality. Take a tour of Vinci which will feel like Italy tours!  There is no doubt in my mind that Vinci is an Authentic Italian Experience in Chicago. When you visit, make sure you take #atoasttothegoodlife.

Lucca – The Famed Walled City

By | 2018-03-07T22:40:46+00:00 March 7th, 2018|Feature, General, hidden gems|

Lucca

The Famed Walled City

Lucca is one of the most beautiful cities in Tuscany and is famous for many things including the retention of its Renaissance era walls.  The walls around the old city were kept intact even as the city became modern and expanded.  The walls are historic as they served to preserve and protect the city and its inhabitants.  Even though the walls have lost their strategic military importance, today they serve as a beautiful promenade–it’s a beautiful walk or bike ride for you to enjoy with all the greenery and trees.

Lucca has delicious foods and many unique artisan shops.  For food, you can enjoy a delicious meal in Lucca and some of the must try foods include:  Farro Soup, made with borlotti beans and seasonal vegetables, Tordelli Lucchese which is pasta stuffed with beef, or Necci, a delicious crepe stuffed with ricotta.  All are typical Lucchese dishes for you to enjoy.  For dessert, try the Buccellato, a ring shaped cake stuffed with raisins and aniseed which is traditionally eaten on Sundays.  It’s delicious with your morning coffee or a glass of red wine.  Remember, you’re still in Tuscany and Tuscany is famous for its red wines.

Lucca also has many artisan shops.  Purchases of interest can include jewelry, art and ceramics.  For fashion, head to via Fillungo, which is the main shopping street in Lucca and enjoy window shopping.

In addition to the delicious food, artisan shops and beautiful, famed walls, there are many other must see sights in Lucca.  Lucca’s San Martino Cathedral is surrounded by medieval buildings in the Piazza San Martino.  With an intricately decorated marble façade, its style is more Roman on the exterior and Gothic on the interior.  There’s also the San Michele church in the large square.  The square is a great place to sit and enjoy an afternoon.  There are many cafes to choose from.  If sitting is not how you want to pass the afternoon, you can climb to the top of the Guinigi Tower, a 14th century tower with spectacular views of Lucca.  There are 130 steps to climb and you will be greatly rewarded with the spectacular views!

Lucca is not only famous for its walls.  It was also the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini.  His home is now a museum filled with memorabilia, including his piano and musical scores.

These are just a few reasons A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience includes a visit to Lucca–one of the most beautiful and unique cities in Tuscany!  Join us for an unforgettable experience where you will live like a local.

Chicagoland Culinary Reviews Part 2

By | 2018-03-14T18:41:42+00:00 March 4th, 2018|Chicagoland Culinary Reviews, Feature, food, hidden gems|

Pelago Chicago 1
Pelago-Chicago 2
Pelago-Chicago 3

This year A Toast to Travel is starting a new search, for the most authentic Italian experiences in the Chicagoland culinary world!

Part 2- Pelago Ristorante

Chef Mauro Mafrici is a tall man, with broad shoulders. He is jovial and chooses his words with the same care he’s put into the establishment of Pelago Ristorante. This exclusive gem is tucked away behind the world famous John Hancock Tower, and that’s the way Chef Mauro likes it. In fact, he prefers catering to his guests in this intimate setting.

Chef Mauro has been cooking since he was 14, originally from Italy; his 40 years of experiences have taken him a great number of places. It was actually in New York City that he met his lovely wife, Kimberly. She’s the architect in charge of Pelago’s design. There on a sky blue barstool, I sat taking a moment to appreciate the space she’d envisioned. The entire room is a cozy rectangle, accessed through a blue glass bubble entry way.  The bar is on the west side and is the first sight one has upon entering. The same blue glass is used to divide the room’s upper and lower levels. The chairs at each table are also blue, and they are accompanied by bright blue purse stools. The stools are a custom adopted from the old wives tale that putting one’s purse on the ground is unlucky financially. The choice in color can be correlated to the Chef’s focus on seafood cuisine. Large windows let a lot of light into the space, and the blue glass partition keeps the room open. This design makes the smaller space feel large and airy.

We were treated to a Chef’s tasting. The beginning appetizers were brought, and we sipped Prosecco in pairing. The Burrata is made fresh and is absolutely delicious–the fresh Italian buffalo milk cheese’s delicious flavor seems to explode in one’s mouth, the fresh herbs complimenting it perfectly. It’s one of the best we’ve had outside of Rome and Italy vacations.  The Risotto tasting followed. We were tempted with three variations saffron, vegetable and tomato basil. The Saffron was al dente, and tasted fresh from the streets of Italy herself. The Ruffino Chianti red wine paired with the final plater. Chianti, Italy is where we, at A Toast to Travel, take our guests for all-inclusive culinary and wine experiences and Italy tours and vacation packages.

The afternoon was passed in pleasant conversation, we took our time tasting each dish, and appreciating the ambiance of the restaurant. The room was impeccable. Behind me, on the wall, hung a magnificent oil painting which when looked at straight on may trick you. The optical illusion of depth is created by a black negative space that contrasts the extremely fine attention to detail in the positive foreground. It appears that if one wished, they could simply reach in and pluck the lobster from the display in the painting.

The dessert sampling finished our meal leaving us with a very sweet impression of Pelago Ristorante. The service was impeccable and faithfully attentive, which served to create an intimate experience between guest and server, leaving one feeling happy and well cared for. Ultimately, Chef Mauro creates an authentic Italian experience in the heart of Chicago.

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