Before we go any further with our "Bella Italia" series, let's pause and take a look at some of my favorite - and not so favorite - things about Italy...
Favorite City - It's a tie between Venice and Rome. Venice because it's so unique and it's so close that I love going there just to walk around and relax. And Rome because it's so big and historic.
Least Favorite City - Verona. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying I dislike Verona. I just don't think it's as great a city as many guidebooks. The Arena is really cool, but for what it has to offer, the city is expensive. Still worth a day trip though.
Best City to Eat in - Bologna, without question. Many Italians will even tell you this. It's nickname is "Bologna la Grassa", or "Bologna the Fat". Rome is also good - outside the train station, there's a plethora of Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants. By the way, Bologna is also home to the best gelato in Italy, found at Gianni's Gelateria.
Worst City to Eat in - Venice, again without question. Most people go expecting to get good Italian food, but it's not known in Italy for its cuisine. It's so overrun with tourists that most restaurants thrive on offering the ubiquitous "tourist menu", which is a generic three or four course meal ordered more for the cheap price than the food quality. You can get a good meal there but you will pay and pay handsomely for it. If you go to Venice, avoid any restaurant that has a menu in more than 2 languages.
Best Food - This is an extremely tough call. I've eaten so well here over the past 5 years that it's difficult to pick one food over the rest. But two things stand out in my mind. One is fresh tortellini made with balsamic vinegar that I had in Bologna. And the other is the scaloppini in curry sauce from a restaurant not too far away from our house.
Worst Food - The sports bar in my town serves a lunch everyday and the owner, Danielle is a great cook. One day he had me try something and I couldn't understand what he was saying. So I tried it and as it turned out, it was tripe al parmesan - cow stomach in a parmesan sauce. I almost puked, it was disgusting. But to locals, it's a delicacy.
Best Wine - Italy is a veritable wine lover's paradise. And the best wine I've had in all of Italy is Barolo from the Piedmont region, south of Milan. It's known as the "King of Wines and the Wine of Kings". And it's pricey, so I don't drink much of it. An average bottle will run you at least 20 bucks, and a good one will run you over 30.
Best Restaurant - In all of Italy, my favorite restaurant is Il Castello in Vernazza, Cinque Terra, but the view is what puts it over the top. If you go, be sure to reserve a table very early so you can get a table with a view. Locally, our favorite restaurant is called Al Mulino. Some of the best seafood we've had and not too expensive.
Best Vacation Spot - Cinque Terra. Unfortunately it's been discovered and covered by several travel guides so it's always overcrowded. But it's still gorgeous.
Worst Vacation Spot - San Remo. San Remo is the capital of the Italian Riviera, just over the border from the French Riviera. We found the city dirty, the restaurants overpriced, the beach subpar, and the water was murky and cloudy rather than the azure blue of the rest of the Riviera. Plus someone smashed my car window and stole the wife's handbag.
Worst Thing About Living in Italy - The driving. Driving home every day after work is literally like driving an obstacle course. Italy has the worst and most dangerous drivers I've ever encountered. And I'm starting to drive like them, which is scary.
Best Tourist Attraction - Il Vaticano - The Vatican. You could spend a couple days just touring this place, which is the smallest country in the world. St Peter's and the Vatican Museum (which houses the Sistine Chapel) are the highlights.
Worst Tourist Attraction - The Gondola rides in Venice. I'm sure you've heard me rant about them before so we'll leave it at that.
Best Souvenir - The Popener. It's a bottle opener with a picture of the Pope on it - hence the name. It's like having the Pope himself open your beer. And if you've been following my blog for the past few months, you know how the Popener saved me from a potential ass-raping in Rome.
Best Pub - Yet another tough call. I would say that if I had to pick only pub in Italy to drink at, it would be the Fiddler's Elbow in Venice. They have Guinness and Kilkenny Cream Ale on tap, they have outdoor seating, they have a big screen TV and several smaller ones that show soccer and rugby matches constantly, and best of all, there is a kebab shop right next door. What else do you need?
Best Church/Cathedral - The best interior is St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, but for the best exterior, I'd call it a tie between the Dom in Florence and the Duomo in Milan. Both are fantastic.
Most Emotional Moment - Seeing DaVinci's "Last Supper" in Milan. I know it sounds strange, but here's how it happened; only a select number of tickets are sold each day for viewing it. I was lucky enough to get one. The whole place is pressure locked and you go through a series of doors to get into the hall where it's displayed. Only a few people are allowed in at a time. So I go in, walk up to it, and I just sat there staring at it, taking it all in. I can't explain it, I guess I was taken in by the moment, but I was just struck thinking that this was one of the most famous and beautiful paintings in history and at that moment, there were only a few people in the entire world looking at it. And I was one of them. Leonardo DaVinci's "The Last Supper". The original. You would have been emotional too. OK Eric, I'm waiting for your smart ass comment, don't disappoint me...