I Have Become a Biker Babe!

The first time I saw A ROMAN HOLIDAY with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, I fell in love with the idea of riding a Vespa through the cobbled streets in Italy. Because my recent trip to Florence fell on my birthday, I decided it was an excellent time for such whimsy. Walkabout Florence Tours put the whole experience over the top.

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After determining our ability to ride the adorable bikes, Angle, our guide (on right, below), escorted us in a Vintage Fiat out of Florence and into the nearby hills where the views were postcard perfect. I enjoyed immensely sharing my birthday and the tour with three American sorority sisters. We thought we should have secret agent code names. Riding a scooter is a hoot! After multiple photo stops, we were ready for our included lunch at a beautiful facility set on the side of a hill. A little wine,  penne pasta in tomato sauce, and a desert of unparalleled perfection made me exclaim “This is my wish!” when they asked me to blow out my candle.

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I loved this tour so much, I considered doing it again the next day. I was off to Siena, however, and still had to navigate the Italian bus system. Most people believe that travelling by train is best. However, the train station is at the bottom of a hill, stops along the way, may include changing trains, and takes longer. The bus trip from Florence to Siena is about 50 minutes and the station is centrally located.

I stayed in Siena at Hotel Italia on Viale Cavour, which is a short walk to the historic center. After getting my bearings and finding my spot, Al Peccatore on Via Camollia, where I enjoyed both fresh and aged pecorino cheese served with honey for drizzling, as it should be, rustic bread and a glass of red, I prepared to enjoy my five days in Siena. I was still thrilled by my Vespa tour in Florence so enlisted the aid of the exceptionally friendly and accommodating staff at Hotel Italia to book another Vespa tour.

Though not vintage, this Vespa was bright red. I joined a group of folks from Ohio, and one couple from Mexico, who all drove Fiats. In spite of a good drenching and fog, the ride was thrilling. For the first few miles, I needed wind shield wipers on my glasses. After we stopped in an ancient village and then enjoyed lunch and a little wine at Poggio Amorelli, a small winery, the rain gave way to sunshine and puffy clouds. We toured the Monteriggioni castle and thus ended my second Vespa tour.

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My Cincinnati Fix

For the last three years, celebrating Thanksgiving for me has meant flying to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit my niece, a textile conservator at the Cincinnati Museum. Cincy, as the locals affectionately call her, reclines casually out from the Ohio River across history toward America’s Rhineland. Cincinnati may appear elegant and sophisticated but she is not without a little edgy drama. Interested people are taking back Cincy’s sketchy parts, one neighborhood at a time.

One such neighborhood referred to as “Over-the-Rhine” (OTR) due to the extensive German immigrant population is a damned cool place to enjoy some food and wine. Begin with a simple address: 1215 Vine Street. 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab tucked into a deep narrow chunk of Cincinnati’s historical downtown, sports a back bar of abundant wine soaring to the mysterious depths of the ceiling. A casual, trendy, romantic, full bar offering the usual fair is perfect for after work cocktails or before dinner wine. Our restaurant texted us just as we finished our cheese plate.

Directly across the street at A Tavola (at table), 1220 Vine Street, the casual atmosphere perfectly complements the handmade, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, wines, craft beers and cocktails. Carnivores will appreciate the wild boar or Cinghiale meatballs in the house red sauce over rice with artichoke and greens salad with one of the best house balsamic vinaigrettes anywhere. The meatballs were savory, juicy delicousness the size of a pool cue.

A Tavola's Cinghiale meatballs and salad.
A Tavola’s Cinghiale meatballs and salad.

Vegetarians will love the asparagus and mushroom pizza with piles of cheese. Our meal was not super expensive either. Three of us enjoyed wine and dinner for less than seventy bucks before tip.

Also in the OTR near Cincinnati’s impressive collection of breweries, Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market provides a bright, festive display and year round gastronomical choices from the humble potato to the sweetest honey. Located at 1801 Race St., Findlay Market hosts farmers’ markets and other outdoor vendors, street performers, and special events from March to December. We indulged our sweet teeth with sumptuous pumpkin spice fudge that alone would make me go back!

With Cincinnati’s abundant and varied dinning and drinking experiences, we upped our interest a notch by throwing art into the mix. The 21c Museum Hotel on Walnut is a combination contemporary art museum and boutique hotel, at once intimate and universal. With a glass of wine from the ever-rotating selection of world wines in the bar, we wandered through the exhibits throughout the first two floors. The Metropole restaurant inside the hotel fulfils elegant expectations by retaining the historical mosaic tile floors and arched windows, but adds a layer of casual comfort and warmth in a sublime balance. The Metropole features an “old world fireplace” on which the region’s sustainable farm products are prepared. Our starters – three for $16 – were the seven-hour egg, hot olives, and the Hudson flower, a sheep cheese. While my palette failed to discern the difference between the seven-hour egg and one boiled in the usual fashion, I will never eat a cold olive again! Every variety of olive ever grown seemed to be on display: an amazing array of sizes and colors from deepest purple to pale chartreuse. Chef Michael Paley’s menu at the time included burnt carrot salad featuring watercress, feta, red onions, and grilled shallots all topped with flavorful vinaigrette, for $9, and yellow fin tuna with quinoa fritters, and yellow beets. A savory and rich entrée of smoked woodland farm pork with Kentucky grits, roasted autumn crisp grapes and Brussels sprouts paired well with a side of charred sweet potatoes with pistachios and pomegranate. We also enjoyed a lemon tart created by Pastry Chef Suzanne Church.

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It had just the right touch of cardamom and lemon in a buttery delicious shell with nuts. The presentation was so superior we hesitated before mauling it with our forks. We also enjoyed a moderately priced 2009 Serra Barbaresco from Italy. Their current Executive Chef is Jared Bennett. Check out their site at www.21cmuseumhotels.com for a full menu, or better yet, think of an excuse to go experience it yourself. If you are into art and urban awesomeness, Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel is the place.

Visiting Cincinnati is like getting a big old American hug from your favorite Aunt, the cool and hip Aunt. It is a lovely town, a beautiful city, in picturesque and historical surroundings. So I will return because Cincinnati is a city to soothe the rough edges of any rural existence or brighten an everyday routine with some big city glam.

Once Upon a Weekend Merry!

Thirty years ago, I went to university at Missoula, Montana: home of the Grizzlies. As a fresh-from-the-country twenty something, Missoula proved educational in many ways. Downtown bars and restaurants in Missoula are just plain cool. Missoula Club, or locally, The Mo Club, provides THEE best pre-game/post party burger I’ve had anywhere. But there are lots of equally cool spots to consider.

Now there are new notable names downtown. For an authentic bowl of Jambalaya or Gumbo or anything Cajun, definitely try the Dinosaur Café inside Charlie B’s. There’s the Old Post for colossal, tasty, and nutritious lunches or The Iron Horse for a bushel of nachos. One can always find a good gluten-free kale, quinoa all-natural-with-sticks-and-berries kind of meal in Missoula, but I enjoyed a cooked-to-perfection bison burger at James Bar.

Plonk, a wine bar, was superb, but missed the Missoula vibe. They need some bead curtains and a fern or two to soften that slick west coast feel. There’s no need to mention the numerous breweries available to any beer officiannado, but a new kind of drink experience can be found at the Montgomery Distillery where they like to spank their rosemary in a Honeybee Highball including vodka, Wustner brothers honey shrub, lemon soda, and that naughty rosemary. An intriguing menu of unique ingredients provides such delicately flavored drinks as a Rosy Finch comprised of vodka, lime, kaffir lime-vanilla syrup, watermelon puree, and house aromatic bitters served over ice (below right). The other drink pictured is a Rocky Mountain Flip with gin, fir-tip/juniper syrup, egg white, cardamom bitters, lemon and nutmeg, shaken of course.

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Montgomery Distillery, Missoula, MT

When I attended the U of M, naïve young farm girls did not go into Reds unattended. I don’t know what it is like now. Conversely, the university bar used to be Stockman’s. Presently I’m told, not so much. Then, as now, if you desire live music The Top Hat is the place to go. With its recent complete renovation it feels current, hip, exhibits logical use of the space to accommodate a long bar, band stand and dance floor, as well as more intimate seating sections.

The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat
The Brothers Gow at The Top Hat

The Brothers Gow, based in San Diego, jazzed their rock with hints of reggae into a high energy blend. With no cover charge and exhilarating light show, they made The Top Hat my new favorite place in Missoula. They’ll be in Flagstaff, AZ next. Read more about them at http://www.brothersgow.com/the-band.html.

Yes, Missoula still has that wonderful hippy feel and it is still at its heart a college town where you’ll find countless twenty something males with their ball caps on backwards and their female counterparts with wide lace headbands pulled down to just above their eyebrows. People may come to Missoula for all manner of reasons. Perhaps they come to enjoy the numerous recreational opportunities, to enjoy the culture, the art, the scenery, the food and drink and music, or like me, they may just revisit a comfortable familiar mind set. The Garden City, snuggled in its picturesque valley, is still all about acceptance and open-mindedness, so they don’t look askance at an old weirdo like me when I join their ranks for a weekend.