A city’s vibrancy is measured by the quality of its “fast” food, the kind of food you pop in for, like Romans might drop into a hole in the wall joint for an after-theater spaghetti aglio e olio, or you the tourist, after reading this, might pop into La Renella for a slice of pizza. City dwellers have important stuff to do. They don’t always remember to eat at the right time in the right place because you don’t have to remember: good food is everywhere in the vibrant city.

Want something warm, bready and covered with good things? Go to Trastevere and follow your nose to little La Renella, or take the Trastevere foodie tour by The Roman Foodie. However you get there, here’s the door:

la renella bakery pictureLa Renella

It’s likely to be crowded at any time of the day. Just squeeze in there. Find the service window. Ignore the broken one. Giovanni will probably help you.

la renella pizza pictureLa Renella's Pizza Service as served to the crew of The Roman Foodie, who fed us well and frequently on the Trastevere Evening Tour.

You tell him what you want on your pizza, you tell him how big a piece you want, he slices, you salivate.

La Renella also makes much of the bread you might get at decent restaurants in Rome. And they don’t even have a wood burning oven! Well, ok, it is a wood burning oven, but they ignore the printed instructions and heap piles of Hazelnut shells in there. Honest. It perfumes the bread and it’s sustainable. Well, it is as long as people keep eating Nutella anyway.

renella oven pictureLa Renella Oven--With a Secret!

So what’s in a pizza crust? Italy’s famous flour, farina di grano tenero doppio zero from Molino Coletta, yeast and water. Bread is such a simple thing. It’s a wonder corporations can screw it up.

bread dough rising pictureLa Renella: Batch of Bread Dough


bread pictureLa Renella Bread

La Renella Panificio Trastevere
Via del Moro, 15
00153 Roma


Unique: Bread from a hazelnut fired oven
When to Go: When you’re feelin’ peckish.
Region: Lazio Map
Trastevere Vacation Rentals

Forno La Renella originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Apr 13, 2015, © James Martin.

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Oria is a town of around 15,000 people in the province of Brindisi. Oria is one of the principal Messapian cities. It is just north of the ancient town Manduria, which produces the wine called Primitivo di Manduria, the same grape as we know in America as Zinfandel.

palazzo del sedile pictureOria: palazzo del sedile, in piazza Manfredi

It’s a bit of a hill town. Unusual in the Salento. There’s a castle on top and a fantastic medieval festival takes place every year. There’s a Jewish quarter in Oria, one of the oldest in Europe.

The area is a hotbed of nuts and dried fruit. A local brought me into this tiny shop. It sold every kind of healthy snack you might imagine.

Oria: Nuts and Dried Fruits

There is also great food to be found in more formal and airy establishments like restaurants, as you can imagine. Our friend took us to Ristorante Vecchia Oria, shown below. It was way earlier than most Pugliese eat, so the owner adjusted the pictures before he came to the table to talk about what we wanted to eat. We had had a huge meal for lunch, so we were snacking—the four of us shared many appetizers.

Ristorante Vecchia Oria in Piazza Sedile

I was surprised to see that many people said that the food wasn’t to their taste—and many said the wait staff didn’t treat tourists well. Forget that. Talk to your waiter. Show your interest in not just food but in the food that people in these parts eat. Then you are (usually) as good as a local. Just don’t make retching noises when a fish arrives with its head on or look appalled when you see squid tentacles. It’s all part of the cuisine.

Oria, if you are anywhere near it, is an interesting place to visit. There are great views from the castle built in 1227 by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the 13th-century Swabian ruler of southern Italy.

August brings the Corteo storico di Federico II – Torneo dei Rioni

“During the second half of August Oria stages one of Italy’s best medieval pageants when the town re-creates the splendors of the glorious ages by performing a historical Parade of Frederick II and the Palio dei Rioni (Tournament of the four districts). The event originated in 1225 when Frederick II decided to “amuse the loyal inhabitants of Orea” while waiting for his wedding with the bride Isabella of Brienne, which occurred in November of that year in the Cathedral of Brindisi. This historical parade is the most important recreation of the Frederick II’s domain period that takes place today in Italy.” ~ Oria

Map of Oria

Unique:Corteo storico di Federico II – Torneo dei Rioni Medieval Festival
Don’t miss: Oria Castle
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot. Lecce climate charts and information
Region: Puglia Map
Days: 1-2
: Train station to the north of town along the Taranto-Brindisi line.
Parking: Parking lots outside of the old town, some near the train station
Recommended Hotel: B&B Messapia
Local Wines: Salice Salentino, Primitivo

Oria: Puglia Medieval and Messapian originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Apr 10, 2015, © James Martin.

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Lecce is the principal city in the Salento peninsula of Puglia, the heel of the boot. Lecce is the southeastern terminus for Italy’s national rail line and many smaller places on the peninsula can be reached from Lecce using the private rail line, Ferrovie Sud Est. Lecce is a riot of southern Baroque.

lecce cathedral pictureLecce Cathedral - _Duomo di Lecce_ - built in 1144

It’s not just the churches. Look up every once in a while. Your balcony in Cleveland doesn’t look like this, does it? Can you imagine what the neighbors might think?

lecce baroque  pictureLecce: Look up to the Baroque!

The narrow little streets of the historic core of the city just north of the train station are fun to get lost in.

lecce street viewNarrow Lane in Lecce

And the peasant cuisine is inexpensive and tasty. Try the Fave e Cicoria (puree of fava beans and a pile of chicory, a bitter green) as you see in the picture from Trattoria Nonna Tetti near the interesting San Matteo Church.

fave e cicorie pictureLecce Lunch: Fave e Cicorie


Unique: Cucina Povera of Puglia: Fave e Cicoria for example, a creamy puree of favas with a pile of bitter greens, chicory. recipe
Don’t miss Puglia bread, some of the best in Italy.
Puglia has the longest coastline on the Italian peninsula.
When to Go: Spring or Fall. Summers are hot. Lecce climate charts and information
Region: Puglia Map
Days: 2-7
: Train station on the south end of the old city. It’s the southern terminus of the Ancona to Lecce oline, and also the terminus of the Martina Franca–Lecce railway and the Lecce–Otranto railway.
Parking: Parking lots outside of the old town, some near the train station
Recommended Hotel: Mantatelurè
Lecce Vacation Rentals
Local Wines: Salice Salentino, Primitivo

Lecce: Baroque in Puglia originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Apr 08, 2015, © James Martin.


agrigento tourists pictureAgrigento tourists sunning in springtime

You’ve seen countless pictures of the Greek temples spread out over a ridge just south of the Sicilian town of Agrigento. “More ruins!” I hear you mumble sarcastically.

But hear me out. I have always had a soft spot for those temples. It’s not the temples themselves, but the stroll through history you can take. Go in springtime, when the tourists are few and the wildflowers are many. Layer upon layer of history is yours.

There are many ways of seeing the temples. From a cafe? A restaurant at night, when the temples are lighted? Oh, yeah.

agrigento cafe pictureAgrigento the Easy Way. The view oc the Temple of Concord, the most complete temple, from the cafe/restaurant of the Villa Athena, marked on the map.

So…wildflowers you say?

agrigento flowers spring pictureFlowering Agrigento

And let’s throw in some temple columns, ok?

agrigento columns pictureAgrigento Temple Columbs

The Agrigento temples aren’t right on the sea, but they have distant views of the Mediterranean.

agrigento temple pictureAgrigento: temple with a sea view

The Sicilian Carts of Raffaele La Scala

Also in Agrigento are the amazing Painted carts made by Raffaele La Scala in Agrigento.

The Sicilian carts feature historic scenes of the island's history
A Carretto Siciliano by Raffaele La Scala

The illustrations painted on the carts are usually of important historic events in Sicily, originally meant to keep in memory the turning points of local history for those who couldn’t read.

Sicilian carts were meant to be drawn by donkeys, especially for hard work along rough terrain. They could be drawn by horses as well. Some were used at weddings and festive occasions.

You can make reservations to see the cart through the website. Look for “Visite guidate” and fill out the email form.


Zoom out to see the location of the excellent museum.

Unique: Greek temples and more
Not to Miss: “The Sicilian Carts of Raffaele La Scala and the nearby Turkish Steps
When to Go: Spring, April and May, when the maximum highs are 64 and 72 respectively. Nighttime lows near 60 in May, so gazing from an outdoor cafe is possible on warm nights. Easter is special in Sicily, expect religious processions on good Friday (Venerdi Santo).
Region: Sicily Map
Days: 2-3
: Yes, the Agrigento train station is located in the city center.
Parking: Free parking along the main street in the off season
Recommended Hotel and Restaurant: Villa Athene Expensive, but this is a great time to splurge!
Agrigento Vacation Rentals

Agrigento: The Splendor of Sicily in Springtime originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Apr 07, 2015, © James Martin.

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If you have time to get out of Venice, the Veneto region awaits.

Marostica is famous for a single event that happens every two years. It’s a human game of chess, held in front of 4 thousand or so visitors in the main square of town. The chess board is so big you can see it clearly on the map below, but here it is at an odd angle from a visitor’s perspective:

maracostica pictureMaracostica: The Chess Board

Nice Piazza, eh? The town has two castles, one a sort of Entrance castle that sits by the road and beckons you to enter the town. When you enter the Piazza and turn back to look, here is what you see:

maracostica castleMaracostica: The Lower Castle

The other is way up the hill. There are fine trails leading up to it.

marocostica pictureMaracostica: Statue and Upper Castle

Ok, so what’s interesting about the human chess game is that the whole idea of the thing seems not to be based on an actual event but on a work of fiction.

Here’s the way Wikipedia tells it:

“After the Second World War, the comedy writer Mario Mirko Vucetich authored a play in which Two noblemen, Rinaldo D’Anganaro and Vieri da Vallanora, fell in love with the beautiful Lionora, daughter of the local lord, Taddeo Parisio. As was the custom at that time, they challenged each other to a duel to win the hand of Lionora. The Lord of Marostica, not wanting to make an enemy of either suitor or lose them in a duel, forbade the encounter. Instead he decreed that the two rivals would play a chess game, and the winner would have the hand of Lionora. The loser of the chess game would also join the family, through marrying her younger sister, Oldrada. During the play the game takes place on the square in front of the Lower Castle with supporters carrying the noble ensigns of Whites and Blacks, in the presence of the Lord, his noble daughter, the Lords of Angarano and Vallonara, the court and the entire town population.”

The official site and the Italian Notebook make no mention of the fiction, so let’s accept that this romantic account happened in 1454 in be done with it.

Marostica is also noted for its cherries. Over 15 varieties are cultivated in the region by over one hundred producers. They are often left to macerate in some vino rosso. The Marostica cherries have been awarded their own IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) status, and have a connection to the chess game as well. The first known mention of the now famous cherries appears in the script.

So let’s get to the map and the stats.


Unique: A chess game every two years (second weekend of september in even-numbered years.
Not to Miss: Marostica Cherries
Weddings: Weddings in Marostica
When to Go: May to Late June for cherry blossoms, last Sunday in May for the Cherry festival, September for the chess game.
Region: Veneto Map
Days: 2-3
: No train station.
Parking: Free parking along the main street in the off season
Recommended Hotel and Restaurant: Ristorante Hotel La Rosina
Marostica Country Vacation Rental
Local Wines: Soave and others. Taste or purchase at In Vino Veritas enoteca: VIA VAJENTI, 29/A
How to get there from Venice

Marostica: Checkmate! originally appeared on JustGoItaly.com Mar 31, 2015, © James Martin.

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