Grinnell, Iowa, is an active and artsy college town. It’s also one of the most picturesque places we discovered on our weeklong road trip through the Hawkeye state. Whether you’re returning for a class reunion, enjoying a weekend getaway, or simply passing through, be sure to bring your camera (or smart phone) and check out some of these photo-worthy stops we found on our hosted trip to Grinnell.
1. Hotel Grinnell
Hotel Grinnell takes old school to a whole new level — literally. Once a junior high school, Hotel Grinnell is now a chic and modern luxury hotel in the heart of downtown Grinnell, Iowa. One step into the former school building and you’ll want to take pictures to show your friends. The owners elegantly transformed classrooms into guest rooms and the tall windows provide an abundance of light for fantastic photographs. Book a night in the old principal’s office or explore the ballroom which was once a gym. We promise, these will be the best school pictures you’ve ever taken.
2. Merchants’ National Bank
At the corner of 4th Avenue and Broad Street sits the historic Merchants National Bank. Named a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of the Interior, it is one of legendary architect Louis Sullivan’s “Jewel Box” banks. This incredible, well-preserved building now houses the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce and Grinnell Visitor Center. Visitors are encouraged to step inside to look around and of course, take pictures of the colorful stained glass windows and intricate interior design.
3. Grinnell College Campus
Founded in 1846, this private liberal arts college has been an integral part of the Grinnell, Iowa, community for generations. With 1,600 students, the tradition-rich college is often ranked among the best undergraduate institutions in the nation. Old buildings, vast green spaces, and unique architecture make the entire campus picture worthy. Take a stroll across MacEachron (Mac) Field in the center of campus for a great shot of Rawson Hall featuring the distinctive central tower pictured below.
4. Central Park in Grinnell, Iowa
Covering nearly four acres in downtown Grinnell, Iowa, Central Park is a great place to relax and unwind making it a wonderful place to photograph kids and families. The covered stage hosts live music and special events. The the picnic shelter is a perfect spot for family gatherings and reunions. There’s also a water feature that can be activated between the hours of 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. during the warm weather months. It even lights up at night!
5. Drake Community Library
Friends of the Drake Community Library in Grinnell, Iowa, wanted to provide a photogenic destination sign that would also help visitors identify the library. Designed by local artist Ryan McGuire and manufactured by local signage company ASI Signage, the Friends of the Library installed this gigantic piece in front of the library at 930 Park Street. Definitely a picture-worthy stop, especially when there are blue skies.
6. Public murals
There are several large murals painted on buildings and walls throughout Grinnell, Iowa. We enjoyed finding this Dino mural behind a dentist’s office at 817 Commercial Street, as well as other murals around town. See how many you can find and photograph during your visit. The Grinnell Chamber of Commerce also offers a self-guided walking tour of community art HERE.
7. The Periodic Table in Hotel Grinnell
The Periodic Table is Hotel Grinnell’s on-site bar and patio and we wanted to take pictures of everything in it! An oversized Scrabble board and a shuffleboard table sit in the lounge area, while the old junior high school scoreboard is lighted in the bar. Decorated with pictures of chemical elements, The Periodic Table is an ideal place to unwind with a beverage (with many more choices than white or chocolate milk) and share a small plate. The outdoor patio seating area is perfect for lounging around the fire or listening to live music with friends.
PIN FOR LATER
8. Local architecture
Grinnell, Iowa, is well-known as a destination for fans of architecture. Art lovers and architectural historians alike come to see the town’s historic homes and unique buildings on the college campus. Folks also want to visit the entire downtown which is listed on the National Register of Historic places. The Chamber of Commerce even offers a self-guided Architectural Treasures Walking Tour that you can download HERE. Have your camera ready to capture unique buildings like this one that once served as a dentist’s office. The chair was set in the turret with the windows around providing light for the doctor to work.
Nestled in downtown Grinnell, Iowa, Solera is a wine and beer bar and a favorite of locals. Offering a wide variety of quality craft beers and wines, you’ll find it filled with friendly folks who check their worries at the door. When you go, be sure to bring your camera to capture some of the fun and eclectic decor. There’s even a Ruth Bader-Ginsburg bobblehead doll and this one-of-a-kind toilet paper holder. Peacetree Brewing Co. is another great place to stop for a local craft brew.
10. Flowers in bloom
The streets of Grinnell, Iowa, are filled with plush gardens, planters, and baskets filled with colorful flowers. Take time to walk around and admire the different of varieties of flowers. You can even make use of that macro setting on your camera!
11. Food from Relish
When we visited Grinnell, we had the opportunity to sample dishes created by Chef Kamal of Relish restaurant. Using foods harvested by local farmers and producers, Chef Kamal created a five-course meal that rivaled anything we’ve had in the finest restaurants in the Midwest. Because he uses seasonal ingredients from local farmers like Olson Garden Market and Middle Way Farm, there’s always something new or experimental on the menu.
12. Grinnell’s Giving Gardens
Grinnell established Giving Gardens in 2013 through a community transformation grant as a way to give the community access to fresh foods. Anyone can harvest the produce from several gardens around town and there is no cost to participate in the program.
13. Los Girasoles Mexican Restaurant
Not only does Los Girasoles Mexican Restaurant have delicious food, the restaurant itself is picture worthy. The dining room is covered in hand-painted sunflowers. We couldn’t resist photographing the booths, tables, and chairs that all showcased the beautiful flowers. Take lots of pics and splurge on the queso — it’s worth every calorie.
14. Faulconer Gallery
The Faulconer Gallery on the Grinnell College campus is a great place for any photographer to find inspiration. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, the gallery is free and open to the public. With more than 6,000 objects in its permanent collection, the Faulconer Gallery presents exhibitions from local, regional, national, and international artists. In addition, temporary exhibitions change about every 12 weeks. The gallery also hosts many hands-on special events and offers yoga in the gallery twice a week. (We were able to visit while they were setting up a new exhibition – hence the ladder.)
15. Dari Barn
The Dari Barn is a longtime local favorite for fast food as well as delicious ice cream and frozen yogurt. We would have included a photo of the ice-cream we bought, but it looked so good we dug into it before we remembered to snap a picture! Soft serve chocolate and vanilla ice cream are always available. Local favorites include black raspberry yogurt, the cookie dough cyclone, and pulled-pork sandwiches. Be sure to get a photo of the adorable animal yard art outside the store!
Have you been to Grinnell, Iowa? What are your favorite places to stop for a photo? Disclosure: Our trip to Grinnell was sponsored by Hotel Grinnell, the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce, and Travel Iowa. All opinions are our own. Contact the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce for more information and to plan your visit and tell them you heard about it on Postcard Jar!
When we went wine tasting in Tuscany (can I just interject that I’ve dreamt about saying those words for quite some time) I had no idea what to expect from our visit to the town of Montepulciano, other than we would likely be tasting Vino Nobile, the typical wine of the region.
One of the beautiful views near the Podere della Bruciata vineyard.
Made largely from the Sangiovese grape, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is a full-bodied, ruby red wine and I couldn’t wait to taste it in Tuscany (there, I just had to say it again). But before our hosted tasting at Podere Della Bruciata winery, we had a little time to explore the medieval city on the hill.
Our wonderful host and driver, Massi, gave us a complimentary transfer to Montepulciano. He graciously offered to drive us right to the Piazza Grande at the very top of the hill. From there, we were able to take in the incredible views of the Tuscan countryside.
A view across the countryside from the walled city of Montepulciano, in Italy.
Steve and I spent several hours walking slowly down the hill through the narrow streets, stopping at small shops that sell everything from wine and cheese to shoes and clothing.
Our Stay at Villa Ambra
Later that afternoon, we went to the Villa Ambra hotel, whose owners had invited us for a complimentary stay and wine tasting. We got settled in the Doppia Superior room which was absolutely beautiful. The Villa Ambra is an 18-room, family owned bed and breakfast. The hard work and love that the family puts into every detail makes this an absolutely stupendous agritourism destination.
Our room at Villa Ambra was both clean and comfortable. In addition, it had a king-sized bed, private bathroom, and air conditioning that worked extremely well.
Our room was newly renovated. It included a comfy king bed with luxurious bedding and an artistic wall covering that made me feel truly immersed in Tuscany. We took our time settling in to our lovely accommodations and relaxing a bit before the wine tasting.
Our wine tasting in Montepulciano at Podere Della Bruciata
By late afternoon, it was time to head to the lobby to meet other guests for a tour and tasting at the family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata. We got in vehicles and drove down the highway a bit to the vineyard entrance. We parked, and then walked down a dirt road while learning firsthand about the vines.
Andrea explains the processes they use to grow and select grapes at their winery.
Andrea Rossi, a third-generation wine maker, was a wonderful guide and explained the processes they use to grow and select grapes for their wines. He was a great teacher, and answered all our questions along the way. As we continued our walk with him through the vineyard, I noticed the people in front of me turning off the road and following Andrea into the woods. Now you should know I’m not exactly fond of unknown nature excursions and was a little apprehensive about what was in store. Would there be more hiking? A wildlife encounter? Was I going to regret not bringing bug repellent?
Wine tasters head into a small clearing in some woods for the wine tasting.
Nope. We were actually being led to the site of our wine tasting. To watch a 47-second video with my reaction, click here.
Just a few steps into the woods, we found ourselves in a sort of secret hideaway. We stood in a cleared area shaded from the hot, Tuscan sun, surrounded by rock benches. In the center sat a large boulder that served as an exquisite table for our wine tasting and food pairing. It was glorious. I’ll pause here and let the photos do the talking.
Our hosts put out quite a spread for our wine tasting. It included bruschetta, cheeses, jams, salamis, and prosciutto.
Both friendly and hard-working, Elisa and Andrea make every guest feel special and welcomed. Their efforts made this unique wine tasting experience something we’ll never forget.
Andrea explains all that went into making the wine as guests listen and savor the result in a beautiful clearing in the woods.
We enjoyed the company of the other guests in a relaxed atmosphere as we tasted a variety of wines, each paired with delicious cured meats, cheeses, and homemade jams. It was almost surreal; we were tasting wine in the woods in Tuscany. Pinch me! At the conclusion of this amazing experience, we walked back to the cars while watching the sun set over the Tuscan hills.
The group of wine tasters walks along a road in the vineyard.
Our dinner at Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra
Back at the hotel, we met up with our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver, for dinner at the Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra. Andrea helped us select two wines, one that he’d crafted and the other created by his uncle, Marzio Pagliai. Then, the family began serving us a traditional Tuscan meal that turned out to be one of the most exquisite dining experiences we had during our entire stay in Italy.
The family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata produces several wines including, “Ermete,” a Rosso di Montepulciano (red wine from Montepulciano).
The first course was bresaola, a cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
Our meal started with bresaola, cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
Next, came my favorite course (pasta of course) which was linguini pasta with cinghiale, otherwise known as wild boar. It was incredible. Perfectly cooked al dente noodles in a creamy, savory sauce garnished with fresh parsley. Yes, I ate all of it. Every bite. And Steve was noticably disappointed that I didn’t ask him to help finish my plate.
The pasta course: linguini pasta with cinghiale (wild boar). It was a-maz-ing.
Our main course was rosemary beef steak served with a grilled, stuffed onion and freshly picked garbanzo beans from the owners’ garden.
Our main course at dinner: sliced steak cooked to perfection and topped with fresh rosemary.
On the side: a baked onion half topped with crunchy, seasoned bread crumbs served alongside garbanzo beans freshly picked from the owners’ garden.
Unsure if we could eat another bite, we somehow found room for a slice of lemon cheesecake for dessert.
Dessert: Lemon cheesecake with a pineapple slice. Yum!
After dinner, we sat and visited with Deb and Massi under the stars on the patio outside before heading to bed for a wonderful night’s sleep. Honestly, does it get any better than this?
Guests can retire to the patio after dinner to enjoy a relaxing Tuscan evening.
The next morning, after sleeping like babies in the comfy bed, we woke to a farm fresh breakfast spread. We enjoyed a table filled with breads, meats and cheeses and a host of other delectable treats, including homemade cakes and jams.
A beautiful breakfast buffet greets guests in the morning.
Let me just say that one night at Villa Ambra was not enough for me and according to the owners, most people feel the same. Andrea said many of their guests stay for one or two weeks at a time. He said people relax at the hotel or by the pool and enjoy wine and cheese tours and tastings in the area. In fact, some guests even come during the late fall to participate in the grape harvest and wine bottling. Villa Ambra is open from March through November.
The main entrance of the Villa Ambra hotel.
We want to thank Andrea and his wife Elisa and everyone at Villa Ambra for hosting us and making us feel like a part of their incredible family. We can’t wait to come back.
Note: While the goods and services mentioned in this article were provided to us free of charge, the opinions are our own. For more information about Villa Ambra, visit their website athttp://www.villaambra.com/en/.
I’ve done wine tastings before. You pull into a winery, hear all about their wonderful product while sampling a flight of four to five wines poured out in small, two-sip portions 10 seconds apart, decide whether to buy, and then head out the door. So, when we set out on a complimentary wine tasting tour in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany with our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver, that’s about what I expected. I could not have been more wrong.
Massi, Deb, Steve and Ann stop for a picture in Tuscany.
The wine tasting tour Deb and Massi took us on in Tuscany was completely different than anything we’ve ever experienced and we loved it! We think everyone who can should taste wine there. And when you go, remember these five tips to help you have the very best experience possible.
1. Have a driver and guide
Having a driver and guide made all the difference in the world. Driving in a foreign country means learning new traffic patterns as well as new road signs. And in Italy it means learning a whole new culture of driving where lane lines and stop signs are often only seen only as suggestions and driving in the wrong parts of town will result in hundreds of dollars in fines. I’m not kidding.
Massi the Driver knew all the best routes and with him driving, we got to enjoy the view.
I didn’t have to worry about any of that, nor did I have to worry about trying to figure out where we were going which it turns out was down lots of winding, hilly one-lane roads with about 2.4 million roundabouts. Instead of arriving white-knuckled and stressed from the drive, I was relaxed and glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy the scenery rather than focusing on the road.
Looking over olive groves and across the vineyards of Tuscany.
Having a guide was wonderful because we began to hear the stories of the wineries and the wines before we ever arrived at a property. We learned about the natural, organic method used by wine makers in Tuscany, and about how the rose bushes planted at the end of the rows help growers notice potential disease before it reaches the vines.
Roses like these help wine makers gauge the health of their vines.
We were educated about the grape varietals in the wines, and about the significance of the letters “DOCG” on a label on the neck of a bottle. By the time we got out of the car, we knew something about where we were and what we were tasting. Our experience was so much richer because of it.
2. Take it slowly
Each of the properties we visited were small, family run operations. After arriving, we met our hosts and spent a good amount of time chatting and getting to know them before we ever tasted a single wine. For the owners of the wineries, it felt like it was more about building relationships and showing pride in their work than making a sale. And we liked that.
Steve and Deb relax on a terrace, enjoying the wine, food, and view.
At one winery, we had a tour of the cellar, seeing the stainless steel vats where the grapes fermented, turning into wine. We then learned about how they use oak barrels to fine-tune the flavor of their wine.
Next, as a bonus, we saw how they press their own olive oil from trees on their farm. As we chatted, we heard the story of how it took 10 years for them to get a permit to build the cellar and their home above, that before then, they had to work out of a shed and constantly move equipment in and out. By the end of the conversation, we actually knew the family and understood the passion they put into their craft.
Steve and Ann stop for a photo with Sam, one of the wine makers.
When it came time to taste the wine, there were no hurried two sip pours. Instead, the wine maker offered enough of each wine for us to savor, along with heartfelt conversation that made us feel at home on their beautiful properties.
3. Savor the food parings
At each winery, the wine maker offered us food pairings as we sat sipping delicious wines. This wasn’t a plate of cheap crackers or bowl of pretzels, either. Instead, they would pour a wine and then disappear into the house, returning with beautifully plated Italian snacks including prosciutto, bruschetta, cheeses, and olive oil. Every morsel was delicious and served to make the wines even better.
With one tasting, we sere served some bruschetta, as well as prosciutto, salami, cheese, and honey.
At one winery, the owner gave us a sampling of organic jams that she cans from fruit she grows in her garden. We put dabs of these on pecorino cheese from the region and delighted in every single bite.
One wine maker offered us homemade jams made from fruits and vegetables in her garden.
4. Stop along the way
Because we had a private driver and guide who knew where we were going and how long it would take to get there, we could stop along the way and explore some locations we never would have found on our own. One fond memory is a stop in a little walled town called Castellina in Chianti.
Everywhere we looked, we saw beautiful flowers, like these at one of the wineries we visited.
There, we explored the narrow streets, while learning that hundreds of years ago the cities of Florence and Siena constantly fought over control of the town. Today, there is a statue showing how the town has been influenced by both cities.
This statue, in Castellina in Chianti, shows how the city was pulled toward both Florence and Siena.
Ann has always wanted a big olive wood board to use to serve meats and cheeses at home, and Deb and Massi knew just the place. They led us to a store and said the prices here would be better than anywhere else. I have to admit, we were impressed enough with the price that we bought one, but curious as to whether it really was the best price we kept our eyes open for the rest of the trip. Looking back, I’m happy to report that the board we bought was anywhere from 20-100 Euros ($25-$125) less than any other board we found.
We bought one of these beautiful olive wood serving boards. Deb and Massi knew just where to get the best deal.
And, because we thought it was a beautiful place with a really cool tunnel-like construction along the city wall, here’s another gratuitous picture from Castellina in Chianti.
Peeking out a window in the city wall of Castellina in Chianti.
We had one other unique stop on our tour through the Chianti region, a stop at a Antica Macelleria Cecchini butcher shop that was featured by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. We posed for a picture with Don Dario Cecchini, shouting, “carne!” (meat) instead of, “cheese.”
We stopped to pose for a picture with this butcher who was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows.
As we walked away from the butcher shop, Deb and Massi told us they also offer a meat lover’s tour that stops at this place for a multi-course dinner featuring some of the best the shop has to offer. I can’t wait to come back and sink my teeth into that juicy tour.
5. Revel in the affordable prices
While Ann and I aren’t experts by any means, we are pretty up-to-date with pricing of wines because its something we enjoy.
Chianti wine in the traditional basket. While a decoration today, originally, the wine bottles were round so they were put in a basket so they would stand up.
Sitting in Chianti, drinking some of the best wines the region has to offer, I couldn’t believe how good the prices were. We were shocked to learn that good bottles of wine were available for 10 Euros, or about $13.00. Even with the cost of shipping factored in, the prices were very reasonable and, I daresay, less than we’d pay in the United States for a similar wine. At times I almost laughed when I saw the price list because I thought they had to be kidding. But that’s fair market price in Italy, and one of the advantages of visiting wineries in Tuscany. Get a few bottles, ship them home, and savor your savings along with the wine.
An oak barrel is used to hold wine as it ages. The oak imparts flavors to the wine.
At the end of the day, I reflected that wine tasting in Tuscany was not at all what I expected. The beautiful scenery, the excellent wines, new information, and friendly company made it far better.
Massi and Deb. We sure miss these two.
I am so glad we had access to the expert knowledge of Italy Unfiltered to share with us some of the best wineries the Chianti Classico region has to offer, as well as Massi the Driver to take us right to their doors. We will long treasure the memories we made that day, especially in October when the weather is cool enough for safe shipping and the wine we purchased there arrives.
After spending a day on our own exploring beautiful Siena, Italy, our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver picked us up at our hotel and we began our complimentary tour of Italian food, wine, and culture in the Chianti Region. As we got in the car, Steve confided in me that he’d already set his belt one notch looser in anticipation of the day.
Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband, Massi the Driver.
Of course, our first stop of the morning was for an espresso. This is a very Italian thing to do when you are having what Massi likes to call an “espresso deficiency.” I’m used to my Americano style coffee and still need a bit of milk in mine, so I ordered a caffe macchiato which is espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top, typically served in a something that resembles a shot glass.
Cafe machiatto was a great cure for our espresso deficiency.
Now with the proper amount of caffeine in our systems, we headed down winding roads and up and down hills into the Chianti Clasccio region of Tuscany. The drive was incredibly beautiful and we were thankful that we had a personal driver and tour guide to not only tell us about the food and wine of the area but to actually get us there as there is no way we could have found this place by ourselves.
The family home where we did our cooking class and explored their winery.
When we arrived at our destination, Deb and Massi greeted the owners who appeared to be old friends and they welcomed us into their home and winery. Our time with there began with a private cooking class.
Steve and I laced up our aprons and we got right to work. Our first lesson was in making traditional tiramisu, one of my all-time favorites.
We “mostly” separated six eggs for our tiramisu.
We mostly separated six eggs and began beating the egg whites with an electric mixer. Sadly, we had spilled just a touch of yoke into the whites which was enough to ruin it. No worries. We started again and the second time around was successful.
As you can see, the the little bit of yolk that accidentally fell into the white ruined the process.
Steve beat the egg yolks with a bit of sugar and then we folded the whites and yolks back together along with some mascarpone cheese.
Next, we dipped individual lady finger cookies in cooled espresso and placed them in a small, square dish. Then, we added a layer of the cream filling and sprinkling of cocoa powder before repeated the process again.
Our tiramisu, ready to set in the refrigerator. We marked each our creations with a colored band so we could see which one turned out the best.
Next, our instructor insisted that we take a few of the extra lady fingers and dip them in the left over espresso, then dip in the cream filling, and eat! Of course we had to try, I mean, we wouldn’t want to offend our host.
Then, because we’d worked so very hard on our tiramisu, our host broke out the Prosecco and served it with some fried pizza dough that had been sprinkled with sea salt. Prosecco and a snack? This was my type of cooking class.
Steve got very happy when the glasses of Prosecco and the fried pieces of pizza dough came out for a snack.
Next, we learned to make fresh pasta using semolina flour, farm fresh eggs, and just a touch of Tuscan olive oil.
We kneaded the dough before rolling it into a ball and covering it with a bowl to prevent it from drying out.
Next, we used a rolling pin to roll our pasta out into a long rectangle. Once the dough was smooth and thin, we rolled it like a scroll from the top to the middle, and then up from the bottom so the rolls met in the middle.
After kneading and rolling the dough, we rolled it up from each end until they met in the middle.
Then we cut the rolls into small strips, separated them with our cutting knife, and voila — we have pasta!
Next, we cut the rolls into thin strips with a sharp knife.
The fun part was slipping the knife under the noodles and lifting in the middle to see them all unrolled.
Our third and final dish was traditional Tuscan bruschetta — that’s pronounced bru-sketta–which is an antipasto dish consisting of grilled bread topped with garlic and olive oil or other fresh things like tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.
Tomatoes, basil, and garlic are the main ingredients in tomato bruschetta.
I’ve made bruschetta many times before, but a new tip in our class is to leave any extra tomato seeds and juices on the board after cutting the tomato. These hold much of the acidity of the tomato and can make the bruschetta too runny.
After our cooking class was finished, we wandered outside where Massi and Deb told us more about the gardens and vineyards on the property. We had fun checking out 50 year-old wisteria and some 100-year-old grape vines. The property was just beautiful — full of color and life.
One of the 100-year-old grape vines.
The property was filled with beautiful flowers and plants, including lots of fresh lavender.
Then, we walked up a view steps to a patio where the table was set for the most amazing wine tasting and lunch. My jaw must have dropped when I saw the view. It was just incredible.
This view was just stunning.
We began tasting wine, made right there on the property, along with the bruschetta we’d made and some other cured meats and cheeses.
At lunch, we tried the bruschetta we’d made along with other pizzas, cured meats, and cheeses.
Then, two types of pasta arrived, both using the noodles we’d made just a few minutes before. One dish had a mild tomato sauce with fresh torn basil while the other had a spicier red sauce and thyme. Both were delicious.
The pasta we made!
Throughout our intimate lunch, Deb and Massi shared their expertise about Tuscany and tradition. We learned so much about Chianti Classico wine, food preparation, and everything that goes into owning and operating a small, family winery in Tuscany.
The black rooster is a quick and easy way to spot a Chianti Classico wine.
After a long and relaxing lunch which ended with sweet bites of our tiramisu, we headed into the winery where Massi told us all about how the wine is made, stored, and perfected. We had ample opportunities to ask questions and take photographs, things we don’t always have the opportunities to do when traveling in group tours.
Chianti Classico wine.
As we headed back to the car, I couldn’t help but think that this opportunity would not have been possible without the help of Deb and Massi. They knew this family personally and were able to provide us with a Tuscan experience that is not easily found on TripAdvisor or in a Google search. The personalized experience they gave us made our day special, and it was all the more special because we only did things we wanted to do.
[well]This is Part 2 about our complimentary Tuscan food tour with American, Deb, of Italy Unfiltered, and her Italian husband, Massi the Driver. To read Part 1, click HERE.[/well]
We left the bakery, simultaneously asking ourselves how we could possibly eat more and vowing to try. We walked to the car, admiring Siena’s rather imposing city wall as we set off for our next stop, the hidden farmer’s market.
The city wall in Siena, Italy.
An up-close look at the city wall in Siena, Italy. Can you imagine what it took to build this hundreds of years ago?
Massi drove us down narrow streets and through round-a-bouts that we were thankful not to have to maneuver on our own and within a few minutes, we pulled into what we thought was a vacant strip mall because it had no signs. Ann and I didn’t see a farmer’s market, but that didn’t slow our hosts. They led us through an unmarked doorway and into a fresh food lover’s dream.
Steve and Deb from Italy Unfiltered inside the secret food market in Siena, Italy.
Inside, vendors had set up shop selling chickens, proscuitto, fruits, vegetables, tomatoes, honeycomb, pasta and soap. All of it was fresh and in season and all of it looked amazing. With ingredients like these, we began to see why all the food here is so good.
We got to Siena just at the end of the cherry season. These were likely the last to be sold this season.
Deb, a Texan who herself is a graduate of culinary school, told us that Tuscan cuisine is based on three basic ideas: It’s seasonal, regional, and traditional. In other words, the food served at any point in the year is available fresh, and is prepared according to local recipes in the same way it was prepared hundreds of years ago.
Huge bunches of fresh basil were available at the hidden farmers’ market in Siena, Italy.
We bought a package of this authentic pasta at the hidden farmers’ market.
We purchased some pasta which will be perfect on a cold October’s night and headed to our next stop – a roadside fruit and vegetable stand that sold some of the most beautiful produce we’ve ever seen.
I have to give props to Ann, she got some wonderful photos. I’ll let them do the talking, but know that everything we sampled tasted even better than it looked.
Two must-haves in Italy – fresh garlic and red onions hanging at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand in Siena, Italy.
Fresh peaches at a roadside fruit stand in Siena, Italy.
Fresh vegetables at a roadside stand in Siena, Italy.
Fresh tomatoes in a roadside stand in Siena, Italy.
We paused our tour at this point to make stop at an Italian electronics store where they sell everything from curling irons and coffee makers to televisions and refrigerators. Apparently, they take ironing very seriously here. Check this out:
Italians take ironing very seriously. We have no idea what the bottom part of this iron does.
Check out the vast array of irons. But what all do they do?
While Deb and I looked around, Ann picked out a curling iron since she forgot the one that works on European outlets at home, and then we headed down the way to the coffee shop where Massi was waiting for us. There, we saw the most amazing little tarts, and we just had to try get a picture of one.
These two little tarts were fresh and delicious!
These were so fresh that the blueberries burst in my mouth. Yum.
We hopped back in the car and drove to our final stop for lunch. Antica Salumeria Salvini is a place where they sell cured hams, sausages, and meats as well as fresh salads. As we approached the salumeria, Deb and Massi explained that the owner uses recipes that are several hundred years old and is so protective of them he hasn’t even shared them with his son.
Inside Antica Salumeria Salvini.
When we entered the shop, Deb and Massi were greeted like old friends while Ann and I were welcomed like honored guests. We took a moment and wandered the shop admiring the hanging hams, drying sausages, and beautiful meats on display before heading to our table to settle in.
Salami on display at Antica Salumeria Salvini.
We ordered a bottle of the house wine. When it came, something about the label caught our eyes. We looked closer and noticed that it was a picture of the owner of the shop lying on his side wearing only a crown of sausages. He did have a prosciutto ham placed strategically to preserve a little modesty.
Thank goodness for the well-placed prosciutto ham in this picture on the wine label.
It quickly became obvious that the owners are fun-loving people who are
This says, “Drive less so you can drink more,” in Italian.
full of personality. On a chalkboard was written, in Italian, “Drive less so you can drink more.” They were friendly, quick to share a laugh, and have a strange love of all things Texas.
We sat and chatted with Deb and Massi, by now feeling like they were old friends. Soon, the food began to come. Then more, and then more. It was like the salumeria was trying to beat us into submission.
First came a bowl of chilled pasta with pesto, then a bowl of panzanella, a bread salad made with tomatoes, basil, onion, salt, pepper, olive oil, and day-old bread crumbs.
This pasta with pesto was delicious!
Next came a meat and cheese board. On it were several different types of prosciutto, sausages, and cheeses, each one more delicious than the last. I’m not sure how long we sat eating, chatting, and eating some more, but I know that we felt a sense of relaxation down deep, the type of relaxation you feel when you finally disconnect from the rat race and settle in to a slower pace of life.
Who can resist the goodies on this delicious meat and cheese board?
At last our tour came to an end. Stuffed, we headed back to the car and then to our hotel. We got to our room, and I sat down to write about our experience, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I drifted off into a wonderful, relaxing, sleep. When we left the hotel later on that night to explore more of Siena, we did so with a much deeper understanding of the people and culture behind all we were seeing.
Steve and Ann stop for a photo with the owner of the Antica Salumeria Salvini.
We are so grateful we had the opportunity to do this foodie tour with Deb and Massi. We went places we would not have known existed, tasted about 30 new foods and wines we wouldn’t have known much about, and had behind-the-scenes experiences we never would have had without their expertise and connections.
Trust me, this is how you immerse yourself in Tuscany – one taste at a time.
Deb and Massi’s Foodie Tour and transfer services were provided to us free of charge, but the opinions expressed are our own. If you are traveling to Tuscany, you can book Deb and Massi’s services by visiting their websites at Italy Unfiltered or Massi the Driver.
I intended to write this post about our incredible first day with hosts Deb and Massi yesterday, but I accidentally slipped into a food coma. In all fairness, it isn’t my fault.
Deb and Massi.
I mean, they took us on a foodie tour of Siena, and it was a grueling delicious almost five hours of sampling some of the best food that Tuscany has to offer.
American Deb of Italy Unfiltered, and her Italian husband, Massi the Driver, have graciously provided complimentary tours for us during our first ever visit to Tuscany. A fun, outgoing couple, (read more about them HERE) they have incredible knowledge of the area and all it has to offer.
They picked us up at our hotel in Siena promptly at 10:15 a.m. Massi guided the car down narrow Siena streets before dropping Deb, Ann and I off at a coffee shop that is a local favorite. We went in and had a quick cafe macchiato which is a shot of espresso with a dollop of frothed milk. That little energy shot was just what we needed.
Cafe macchiato at a coffee shop in Siena, Italy.
Next, we walked up the block to a place where amazing baked goods are born. Deb led us into a small local bakery, Il Magnifico, where Lorenzo the baker works his magic every night, so locals can savor his baked goods in restaurants, businesses, and schools every day.
The shop at il Magnifico bakery, Siena, Italy.
We entered the shop, where Deb knew everyone, and she showed us different local products that the bakery makes like Ricciarelli, a traditional dessert biscotti made with almond flour and formed by hand. I’m pretty sure that once they are in the oven they are kissed by angels or something because these little powdered sugar-covered bites are nothing short of AMAZING!
These Ricciarelli taste like they were kissed by angels in the oven.
Deb went on to show us other specialties of the bakery, like Panforte, a cake made with dried fruits and nuts and happiness extract that combine to make a treat unlike any other we’ve tasted.
Beautifully wrapped panforte ready for sale at il Magnifico.
She next showed us another biscotti, Cavallucci, which got it’s name from its horse-hoof shape. This is important to Siena, because Siena is home to the Palio, an incredible horse race that happens twice a year, and has been going on for more than 400 years.
Biscotti on display at il Magnfico Bakery, Siena, Italy
Suddenly, we were summoned to the back of the bakery. Lorenzo, the baker himself, wanted to talk to us.
Some of Lorenzo’s baking equipment at il Magnifico in Siena, Italy.
We walked behind the counter and into a large, warm room filled with a huge oven and cooling racks, right into the heart of the operation. Standing in the room was Lorenzo, one of the smiliest, friendliest people we’ve met, yet.
Owner and baker Lorenzo shows us a loaf of traditional Tuscan bread at his bakery in Siena, Italy.
He was so excited for us to be there, and he immediately began explaining all he does and his philosophy behind it. He talked ingredients, technique, and perhaps some thoughts on the chances of the Siena soccer team. We really didn’t know, because he said it all in an impressive stream of Italian that went on and on, seemingly without a break for air. Quickly, it became apparent that he was very proud of all he did, and was excited to welcome visitors from abroad and share openly with them.
Cantucci biscotti packaged for sale at il Magnifico bakery in Siena, Italy
When he paused for a moment, Deb stepped in, interpreting in English for us. Then Lorenzo began another soliloquy. As soon as she could, Deb again explained what he what he was saying. This back-and-forth went on for a few minutes, and we learned quite a bit. At some point, Massi returned from parking the car, and helped interpret, as well.
Our hosts Deb and Massi arranged for this behind-the-scenes tour at the bakery. What a way to experience Siena, Italy! And with Prosecco!
Lorenzo’s father and uncle started the bakery in 1952. They’d traveled to Milan, where they got a little bit of sourdough starter from a bakery there. The starter is a lump of dough into which you mix ingredients and make a lot of dough. Before baking, you take some of the dough and reserve it, and it becomes your starter for the next day. This particular starter dates back over 200 years. Think of that. Bread in this line was being baked before the first shots of the U.S. Civil War.
Lorenzo shows us the “Mother.” This is the piece of starter from which all of his future bread will be baked. This starter is part of a line that goes back more than 200 years.
Lorenzo is extremely careful to follow traditional methods and recipes. In fact, some of his recipes have been being made for 800 years. He uses nothing but traditional, organic grains in his products. And what he produces is incredible.
Panforte is a traditional holiday cake served in Siena.
He told us that his father taught him that it’s okay to spend a little more money for real ingredients. And Lorenzo does. Instead of buying egg yolk product for one cake recipe, he instead cracks open and separates 120 eggs. By hand. He does things the old way, and his over-the-top delicious products prove it’s the right way.
Biscotti at il Magnifico bakery, Siena, Italy
As we continued our tour of the bakery, Lorenzo suddenly disappeared. He came back with a larger -than-life smile and a plate of baked delectables. Then another. Soon, a worker brought a third, then a fourth plate.
Lorenzo and an employee sho off some of the many plates of food they brought for us to sample.
Cups with a bottle of water appeared, then wine glasses and a bottle of Prosecco. Before we knew it, we were working our way through a sampler plate of pizzas, breads, cookies, and cheeses and we were loving every single bite.
Two of the many trays of food we had to sample at il Magnifico.
I knew from Deb and Massi that we had several more stops to make on this tour, but I couldn’t keep myself from trying a little bit of everything. I knew our blog followers would want to know something about each of these baked goods, so I loosened my belt and kept sampling for the sake of research.
Eventually, we had to leave the bakery and our private foodie tour continued. But for now, let’s pause and reflect on the bakery and Deb and Massi’s well thought-out tour. Without their guidance and connections we never would have gotten to go behind the scenes and wouldn’t have thought to eat dessert first.
We’re Steve and Ann Teget. We spent more than two decades in corporate America and public education before Ann’s health and Steve’s aversion to middle school girl drama convinced us to try something new. Now we are making the most of midlife and telling authentic stories about extraordinary travel. And yes, we send ourselves postcards.