The Finest Gifts from Italy

Gifts from Italy
Looking for that perfect gift from Italy? Even though I’m always a fan of tracking down artisanal gifts in person, these days, you can find some pretty great Italian gifts online, too. And I don’t mean gift baskets where the “parmesan cheese” hails from Wisconsin.

Because it’s that time of year again, I spent some time scouring the interwebs to find the best gifts from Italy — as in, the finer things: from perfume to leather journals to olive oil.

And don’t miss this year’s best gifts for travel to Italy; all of my previous Italophile gift guides can be found here).

Here are just a few of the finer Italian experiences you can give — no airplane required!

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Where to Find Rome Christmas Markets (Updated for 2018)

In Rome Christmas markets just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.

Today, Piazza Navona remains the biggest Rome Christmas market, at least in the center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. And after being called off for some previous years, the market is back — it should open on 2 December 2018 and close 6 January 2019. (Of course, this being Italy, things can always change!).

But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.

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What to Eat in Rome — And Where


When in Rome, eat Roman food. (Duh). But to have the best possible culinary experience, go a step further: have the city's most top-notch traditional dishes… at the restaurants that make them in the tastiest, most authentic ways. And it's not always easy to know where that is, since a trattoria that serves up only mediocre meat courses might make the best pasta alla gricia in Rome, while a restaurant usually better ignored might actually be the number-one spot for carciofi alla giudia.

Luckily, here's help! Here are six of Rome's must-eat dishes — and my favorite places for trying each one — in my first piece for the Travel Channel. (Stay tuned for more!)

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Rome’s Underground, Beyond the Catacombs

San Nicola underground

Anywhere you go in Rome, you're walking on a buried, ancient world. Beneath your feet lie the remnants of the city that ruled an empire: temples and streets, villas and churches, monuments and tombs. And while we've all heard of the catacombs, there are many, many other underground sights in the city that are every bit as fascinating. If not more so.

I wrote about seven of my favorite hidden, yet accessible places for an underground Rome fix for the Globe and Mail, online here.

(Update,December 2014: After I wrote that piece, one of the coolest, and longest-awaited, underground sites in Rome opened: the Domus Aurea, or Nero's Golden House. Find out more about the Domus Aurea, and how to get there, here!).

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Italy in 30 Days

03-italy-scarf.w529.h352.2xThis month, New York Magazine is taking a little trip to Italy, with stories every day on the trials, tribulations, myths and magic of la bella vita. I'm excited to be contributing ten (count 'em… ten!) different pieces throughout the month. I'll be updating this post with the links as they publish. Enjoy!

Ciao, bella: 15 lessons from my life in Italy. How does living in Italy change you? Oh, let me count the ways…

Three pasta recipes to impress your Italian lover. Yes, you can recreate those amazing pastas you had in Rome, at home. How do I know? Because if I can do it, anyone can. Here's how.

From Italian nutritionists: Eat cookies for breakfast. In moderation, of course. That, and how to fit gelato, pasta and cappuccino into your diet, straight from the mouths of Italian dieticians. You're welcome.

To Rome with love: Six hidden-gem neighborhoods refreshingly free from tourists (for now). Even devoted readers of Revealed Rome will find some surprises. That's a promise.

Wild, medieval, non-touristy Umbria: A brief tour. It's my favorite region in Italy. Here's how to get started on exploring it — whether in a day or seven.

Naples: Less garbage, just as much to love. Not everyone falls in love with Naples, a city almost as maligned in Italy as it is abroad. I did. Here's why (and why it might deserve a stop on your next Italy trip).

Is your olive oil lying about its virginity? (It might not even be Italian!). My Q&A with intrepid investigative reporter Tom Mueller on an industry so scandalous, profits from fraudulent oil are on par with those from cocaine trafficking — and on why you should care.

Why won't Italians have cappuccino after dinner? Plus: can colpo d'aria (a hit of air) really give you a neck pain? And does a digestivo really help you digest? I talk to doctors to get to the truth behind eight rules that many Italians insist you follow — because otherwise, you might getsickandDIE.

Want real Italian food? Skip these seven dishes. From spaghetti and meatballs to fra diavolo, some of the plates most beloved by Little Italy neighborhoods across America are all but impossible to find in the motherland. Here's why, and what to order instead.

The mayor shouldn't have gone to Capri this summer. Here are five other Italian islands I'd have sent de Blasio that are every bit as stunning as the glitzy isle, but far more under the radar.

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The Most Beautiful Island Escapes Near Rome (Updated for 2018)

The island of Procida, one of the best islands near Rome

I love Rome in summer as much as the next girl. But usually, by the time June rolls around, I’m already dreaming of escaping to an Italian island near Rome.

Luckily, the capital’s proximity to the sea means you don’t need to set aside a whole week to enjoy some idyllic island time: even just a weekend will do. When I’m craving beautiful scenery, super-fresh fish, laid-back hamlets and those sparkling Mediterranean shores, but only have 48 hours to spend (or less!), these are the islands I always turn to.

Ponza, one of the best islands near Rome
I’d wile away my whole day on this dock in Ponza, too, if I could…

It’s a big claim when it comes to the Mediterranean, which is (let’s be honest) embarrassingly #blessedwith stunning little spots, but I’m going to put it out there: these are some of the best islands not only near Rome, but some of the best Italian islands around, period.

The best island near Rome for… going where the locals go: Ponza

Ponza, one of the best islands near Romea
It’s hard to dream of a prettier place than the harbor of Ponza at twilight…

I can’t believe I’ve gotten into year five of this blog (or my travel-writing career, for that matter) without having published a word about Ponza. For shame! When it comes to Mediterranean islands, it’s easily one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… from international tourists, that is.

Romans, on the other hand, know Ponza well: in fact, the well-heeled have been visiting the island for more than 2,000 years, drawn by its lush, volcanic greenery, striking cliffs and, of course, bright-blue sea. (Fun fact: the island gets its name from a local legend which holds that Pontius Pilate’s own family had a villa here).

Today, Ponza (also shown at top) is scattered with a handful of small, pastel villages. The main port town crowds with Italians fresh off the ferries in July and August. (It’s much quieter even in June, and when I went once in October, there was hardly anyone there at all—even though the temperature remained balmy enough for a swim).

Circe's cave at the island of Ponza, Ponza, one of the best islands near Rome
Circe’s cave at the island of Ponza (Also: Look. At. That. Water)

Although its villages are lovely, Ponza’s main attraction is, of course, the natural scenery. Don’t miss  the Chaia di Luna (above), a crescent of cliffs plunging into the sea where Circe, the sorceress, was said to have seduced Odysseus. In-the-know-Italians also flock to Spiaggia di Frontone, which you take a ferry to from Porto, and stay until the evening, hanging out at the laid-back bars and beach clubs.

Taking a boat around Ponza, one of the best Italian islands near Rome
You can never go wrong with renting a boat to see Ponza… or any of the other islands on this list

Renting a car or scooter is, as with all three of these islands, suggested—but for Ponza, especially, it’s also worth renting a small outboard boat, which you can do right at the harbor, to toodle around. It’s the best way to get to those out-of-the-way coves and beaches that make the island so special.

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Formia-Gaeta (one hour, €16.50 or 1.5 hours, €8.20), or to Anzio (one hour and €3.60). From Formia, Laziomar runs ferries to Ponza (80 minutes, €25.50 or 2.5 hours, €16.70); from Anzio, Vetor offers ferries to Ponza (70 minutes, €25 to €48).

The best island near Rome for… sightseeing (including a castle): Ischia

Ischia, one of the most beautiful and best islands near Rome
The view of beautiful Ischia from its equally beautiful castle

Capri isn’t the only island off Naples and the Amalfi coast. Ischia, its neighbor, is actually the largest island in the bay—plus is cheaper, less touristic and every bit as beautiful.

I’ve written about Ischia at length before, both in this post and in this story last year for the Globe and Mail, so I won’t repeat it all here. But let’s put it this way: Ischia has a ridiculously picturesque castle (that just happens to date back to the time of the ancient Greeks), tons of little villages and coves to explore, and some of the best sfogliatelle around. And it makes not only a fantastic quick trip from Rome, but a great day trip from the Amalfi coast or Naples, too.

Yes, you could definitely come to Ischia and just flop down on the beach. But with so much to see, you’d kind of be missing the point.

Castello Aragonese in Ischia, one of the best islands near Rome
A medieval castle gives an Italian island serious bonus points, amiright?

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Ischia. The fastest from the main port takes 45 minutes and costs about €28 each way.

The best island near Rome for… an idyllic day trip: Procida

Procida, one of the best islands near Rome
How insane are these colors?

This picturesque little island is another of Capri’s lesser-known neighbors. It also measures just 1.5 square miles—leaving so little room for tourism buildup, both hotels and tourist crowds are pretty nonexistent.

That, of course, is part of Procida’s charm. Old men gather in the piazzas to gossip and smoke, fishermen repair their nets on the docks and centuries-old traditions endure—like the Good Friday procession of the Misteri, which parades life-sized, handmade floats through the town.

Procida, one of the best islands near Rome
The perfect place to just relax

Aside from the seaside life and spectacular scenery (this is where Il Postino was filmed), the island has a sense of magic to it I haven’t experienced anywhere else, a kind of Neapolitan mysteriousness that’s been transferred (and preserved) offshore. One local legend has it that, when Procida was besieged (hardly for the first time) by pirates on 8 May 1535, locals called on St Michael the archangel for help. He showed up, sword in hand, and the pirates fled, another anniversary that’s celebrated with a procession each year.

For more about Procida, and more shots of this stunning off-the-beaten-path island, check out my slideshow for the BBC. Procida, an island escape from Rome

Procida’s size makes it more walkable than the other islands, so you don’t have to rent a scooter or car. But getting to some of the farther-flung beaches on the island can still be a bit of a hike (it’s a 2-mile walk from the town to the lovely, if crowded on summer weekends, Lido di Procida beach, for example); we found ourselves occasionally taking cabs, which were relatively cheap (but you will have to have some way to call them).

As an aside, the island’s manageable size and proximity to Naples makes it not only a great weekend escape, but a doable day or half-day trip from Naples or the Amalfi coast.

Beautiful Procida, a great island near Rome
One of the parts of Procida where Il Postino was filmed

Getting there: For the most part, the ferries that run to Ischia stop, first, at Procida. So it’s the same procedure as above: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Procida. The hydrofoil takes just 40 minutes and costs about €15 each way.

AlsoRome’s best beaches, the complete Rome summer guide, and lakes near Rome you won’t want to miss.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Best American Brunch Spots in Rome

Where to find American brunch in Rome
Yes, you can have pancakes like this in Rome… without making them yourself.

Sometimes, you don’t just want brunch in Rome. You want American brunch in Rome. You know. Pancakes. Eggs. Bagels. Filter coffee.

That can be pretty tough.

Finding brunch in Rome isn’t the part that’s hard. Like cupcakes and cocktails, brunch is what all the cool kids in Rome are doing (or consuming) these days.

And, like cupcakes and cocktails, even though some of the cool factor of brunch stems from it being a US import, it’s often not quuuuite done American-style. In fact, most Italian brunches offer up a spread that just like a noon-time aperitivo, with pastas, salads, meats, and cheeses. (And maybe some couscous or farro, if we’re getting really fancy).

But when you’re homesick hungry for American brunch, that just won’t do. Here are three places to head to instead: my three favorite spots for American brunch in Rome.

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50 Signs That Rome Is Really Home

What’s living in Italy really like? Here are some of the ways you’ll know when you’ve lived here for a while—and that Rome has changed you (…for better or for worse!).

1. You walk into oncoming traffic without blinking. And you’re impatient with others who don’t do the same.

2. You know that living in the “Ghetto” isn’t dangerous or cheap. It’s luxurious. And expensive.

Ghetto ruins for web
The “Ghetto.”

3. You set aside whole afternoons for tasks you used to think of as simple, like mailing a package or getting passport photos taken. (Every once in a while, these tasks take 15 minutes or less. When that happens, you’re so astonished, you waste the next two hours by calling your friends to tell them about it, anyway).

4. Foods you used to find normal, like chicken with pasta or carbonara with peas and cream, now turn your stomach.

Carbonara in Rome
This, my friends, is what a carbonara should look like.

5. You don’t go outside with a wet head—not because you really think you’ll get the colpo d’aria (and die!), but because you can’t stand the looks from everyone around you who does think you will.

6. Wi-Fi and bagels are a big deal.

7. Ancient ruins and Renaissance art are not. 

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