Olio & Convivium: Tucked away in clear sight in the Oltrarno

Walk into any design studio, shoemaker, antique shop, or other working center of creativity in the Oltrarno, and most all of the resident mellow, humble artists will say that they rarely venture over to ‘the other side of the river.’ They avoid it for the duration of high season, leaving it instead to the masses of tourists that descend on the locus of art and history. They flood the most central streets, eager to soak in the city’s ancient culture, to check a renaissance statue or museum off their list, and to cram into the trattorias that they read about in their guidebooks. Yet I can’t help but wonder, (wonder- not wish for- there is a clear difference), why more have not flooded the streets of the Oltrarno, as they are just as beauteous and have far more interesting shops and wine bars, endless fabulous restaurants, and an ambiance immediately more local and authentic. I feel as protective over the neighborhood as the expats and the locals; I want to save it from the crowds. I want to move it farther away from the famed gelaterias at the end of each bridge.

Certainly the average visitor is unfamiliar with Convivium Firenze,the foremost catering company founded in1980. The Convivium team has a stellar reputation in Firenze for their exceptional catering. They bring their talents in décor, service, flavors, and aromas to events of all sort- fashion and gala affairs, political receptions, and convention dinners. Olio & Convivium, the intimate restaurant and shop in the city center, was an idea that came to fruition after many successful years in the Florentine catering business. The same level of perfection, creativity, and quality can be experienced within walking distance of art galleries, workshops, milliners, and of course, each of the traditional Florence attractions.

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The elegant wine room at Olio & Convivium

Wander into Palazzo Capponi on my favorite street, Via Santo Spirito, and you will experience a quiet elegance quite difficult to muster in today’s age of trendy and quirky restaurants, or at the other extreme, cold, charmless, and without character. Olio & Convivium is none of the above. In the cozy shop, you can pick up everyday necessities, such as thinly sliced cured meats, mozzarella, and pasta. It goes without saying that all of the prodotti are of superior quality: jars of dried tomatoes and sardines, bowls of olives, tins of tea, and bottles of honey neatly line the shelves. Shoppers can assemble gift boxes, or perhaps take an item or two home after a leisurely lunch. Busy Florentines can have their items delivered to their homes or offices. Walk past a case of antipasti, walls of olive oil and balsamico, jars of homemade biscotti, and a bassinet of bagged mozzarella sitting in cold water, and you might spot a few tables around a corner.

The dining room, beyond the dried pastas and condiments, is one of the most beautiful and elegant rooms I have discovered in my never-ending restaurant explorations. It is cozy, intimate, and warm, with tall ceilings and walls of over 250 pristinely displayed wine bottles. Two blackboards, one on either side, display the day’s specials- both food and wine.

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Both Convivium prodotti and other Florentine specialties are sold here.

As if the dining area is not serene enough, the service makes the experience all the more intimate. Angelo is the most gracious, patient host. He champions the service at Olio & Convivium with such natural flair that we immediately feel as though we are guests in his home. We tell him what we are in the mood for, and he makes thoughtful suggestions layered with friendly conversation, gentle humor, and quiet wit. He is swift, and his two other young servers are equally well-trained. Their synergy needs no speech; they work seamlessly together to make each patron’s experience first class minus the stuffiness.

Angelo is equally generous with the restaurant’s offerings. When we request shards of parmigiano, a munificent plate arrives, the rustic pieces served on the same size plate as our secondi, a suggestion of the cheese’s centrality and essentialness at every Italian dining experience. We order a green salad, fully expecting a basic bowl of greens, but to our great surprise, a beautiful plate of fresh leaves is presented. Angelo sets up a side table for our antipasti: the salad sits next to a quintessentially Tuscan offering of verdure sott’olio: mixed olives, small hot peppers stuffed with capers, tender artichokes (carciofi), raddichio, the most beautiful baby mushrooms, and tangy sun-dried tomatoes.

The specials of the day are on the blackboard, and in addition to these ever-changing options, the written menu changes every few days as well. On our first night, (we returned a second time in the same week), I order the sea bass with a cauliflower puree. Angelo assures me there is no cream and no butter: the puree is purely olive oil and cauliflower, certamente. The sea bass flakes at the delicate pressure of my fork, the cauliflower puree is none too thick nor too thin; and it is topped with one or two whole florets. The homemade tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms is exquisitely presented; the mushrooms are tender, the tagliatelle lightly dusted with black pepper and gently coated in fantastic Tuscan olive oil. One parsley stem sits atop the ribbons of al dente pasta.

On our second night, we try what quickly becomes the best duck we have ever had. It is another beautiful plate, creatively enhanced with subtle flavors that lead us to believe the chef may have studied outside of Italy. In fact, Angelo tells us that the main chef is away on his honeymoon, and the sous chef helms from Asia. The blackboard tells us the tagliatelle special is meat sauce senza pomodori; instead of a tomato base, the meat is cooked in wine. Intrigued, I allow Angelo to seduce us once again with the warm, al dente pasta. The dish is simple yet highly original, certainly a great many steps outside of the more predictable Tuscan menu items seen at many of the region’s restaurants, which have remain unchanged for decades.

Generosity and graciousness are part of the experience at Olio & Convivium, and Angelo does not let any guest rise from la tavola without a complimentary dessert tasting, whether a separate dolci has already been ordered or not. Here is an insider tip: the homemade biscotti alone are worth a visit. My favorite is the one with chunks of dark chocolate. Oh Angelo, I hope you save me one for la prossima volta (or two, or the whole jar… )

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Alla tavola: insalta fresca e verdure sott’olio.

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Light sea bass with a cauliflower pure (senza burro, certamente)

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Handmade tagliatelle with porcini: molto semplice with one sprig of parsley and perfectly tender porcini.

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Per dolce: succulent figs, warm strawberries, and dark chocolate cake.

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Bags of mozzarella in their bath.

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The main dining room at Olio & Convivium

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The first night we wandered in, this bowl of mozzarella was sitting at an otherwise empty table as if a renaissance painter were painting its portrait.

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Peek around the corner and you will find the tranquil dining room.

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Mista del produtti: jars of the best homemade biscotti I have ever had, coffee, cured meats, and flatbread.

At Belmond Villa San Michele, A Lush Landscape Floats on Tuscan Treetops

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I wonder how many centuries it has taken for the landscape to become so full and lush. Rooms are built into the terraced landscape.

Belmond Villa San Michele is the kind of dreamy that gets earmarked for ‘one day.’ A member of the most exclusive consortium of luxury hotels, Leading Hotels of the World, Belmond VSM quietly reigns supreme from atop lush Fiesole. One minute we are dodging tourists seven rows deep in front of Rinascente. Fifteen minutes later, we have been transported to a dreamlike bubble that deserves its own air quality rating. We spill out of the shuttle at the helm of the main building, a fifteenth century monastery nestled into the most enviable of Florence-adjacent Tuscan hillsides. The structure, which looks as though it is sketched into the sky, something that I would frame and hang as part of a series in an entry foyer (in fact, this is what I plan to do with the wonderful sketch work that makes up the property’s menus and stationary), is tempered with a stone patio measuring the building’s width and dotted with oversized terra-cotta pots topped with red bulbs that reach heights taller than my sunhat.

Our luggage is magicked away, and while I know that I should follow its direction into the warm reception area and introduce myself to cream-jacketed gentlemen awaiting our arrival, gravity pulls me towards another stone terrace to my right, overlooking all of Florence. In the coming days, I struggle to pinpoint the property’s most magnificent characteristic: the meticulously manicured terraced gardens and pathways, the ancient structure itself with airy salon rooms and a scrupulously restored fresco of ‘The Last Supper,’ or the wholly encapsulating view: blue skies for breakfast and an impressionist’s menage of pastels at sunset.

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In fact, the structure and the sunsets are each so spettocolare that they deserve their own posts, which I will publish in good time. For this article, I will focus entirely on the exquisite grounds. (Google ‘spettocolare’ and your search results will be clad with glorious Italian sunsets.) Once tended to by Franciscan monks, the property is now maintained, to my great astonishment, by just a handful of gardeners. Upon countless wanderings through the geometric gardens, I can hardly believe that the entirety is cared for by anything less than an invisible team of twenty, (invisible because for all of this awe-inspiring perfection- not a stem out of place- I never once saw a pair of clippers, nor a rake, nor a leaf blower, nor a gardener for that matter.) The terraced gardens are dotted with lemon trees and fragrant with roses. The pool, on the uppermost level, enjoys panoramic views of the Arno Valley. La piscina is seclusion personified, and not just because it is only reachable by a great many steps, a characteristic I am accustomed to after many trips through Italy; it is a country of many steps, and those who climb are rewarded. I look forward to relaxing under an umbrella with one of the books on offer, lathered in Italian sunscreen (also on offer), with the sound of water cascading down the cliff into the pool as a most natural soundtrack.

An endless array of activities are specially designed for guests to enjoy at their leisure. One such out of the ordinary adventure is a tour of the precise locations used for Love on a Pillow, the Brigitte Bardot movie filmed at the property in 1962. Guests who are eager to conjure up a bygone era can take a Fiat 600 to Villa Gamberaia and the glorious San Miniato al Monte. I pause to recall if I packed a silk scarf with which to tie my hair back. 2014 has been the year of la dolce vita alla 1960s splendor at Belmond Villa San Michele, and quite a few of the activities are designed to call to mind the fervor of this time period. Belmond is renowned for creating such original ideas which are unique to each property and which rely on the excellence of its staff.

At Villa San Michele, Concierge Marizio Ammazzini is the resident magician. I like to think Ammazzini is Italian for Amazing, for Maurizio is just that. With charm and ease, Maurizio can organize any unique activity the traveling heart desires. While the tour of Florence’s famous confectioners in a three-wheeled electric car emblematic of the 50s and 60s may have been specific to the aforementioned theme, the property’s Cookery School is a classic activity available indefinitely. Each night, a memo highlights the next day’s offerings, and I find it difficult to turn down a private training session through the Tuscan hillside, using nature in lieu of gym props, the natural Chianti landscape as an incline instead of some awful whirring machine, especially after countless divine dinners in the city center. Then again, I cannot help but inquire after the famed Cookery School. Add to that an afternoon of grape pressing with the sommelier and plenty of time to simply relax and take advantage of a tranquility that can only be attributed to the one-time presence of monks; a people who clearly understood the importance of being secreted away above vibrant Florence, and I am spent.

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What I have discovered is that the sumptuous Belmond Villa San Michele is not just for ‘one day.’ One might think they should save a visit for a special occasion, but with the warm, amicable staff, the relaxed and convivial atmosphere, and the ease and speed with which the shuttle reaches the city center, I fully appreciate why it is a property that guests return to year after year. For whenever I desire to visit Florence (which is quite often), Belmond Villa San Michele is an ideal escape from the city, a place to center oneself amongst roses and cypress trees. After a morning swim and a hike through the forest, I am ready for the 15 minute descent down the hill for more Florentine adventures.

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Terraces with sweeping views at Belmond Villa San Michele

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Vantage points simply adorned with terra-cotta pots.

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Seating arrangements.

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Belmond Villa San Michele floats above Florence.

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at Belmond Villa San Michele

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The elegant driveway.

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The main building is an original fifteenth century monastery.

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Nestled into the hills above Florence.

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This way to alfresco breakfast, cocktails, and dinner at La Loggia.

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The brick patio at the front of the main building.

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Lemon trees dot the property.

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Cammillo: The perfect first meal in Florence

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Setting la tavola at Cammillo.

Starting a conversation with an Italian is as easy as breaking bread. My excitement for arrival in Florence builds as my ears fill with the sound of la bella lingua. Why shouldn’t the adventure begin at the gate? As an added benefit, I can practice my Italian before landing. Ten minutes later, we have made a few new Italian amici, Florentine natives who quickly discover that they have a few friends in common amongst themselves. They patiently listen to me run through my list of restaurants in the centro storico, and they offer their opinion on those that they know. One ever so friendly gentleman, flying home to Florence with his teenage son whose face lights up when offered a biscotti, suggests one of his favorite trattorie, Cammillo, instead of the more upscale restaurant I had reserved for that evening’s dinner. I email our hotel immediately (Firenze Number Nine), to seek their help in making the last-minute switch.

We arrive at about 8, early for Florentines, but the restaurant is already packed and a line has formed at the door. We politely ‘permesso‘ our way through to Chiara, whose grandparents opened Cammillo in the 1940s. She runs it now with her ever-so-polite and subdued husband, who travels through the rooms with a humble smile, quietly observing and ensuring the satisfaction and joviality of his patrons.

The restaurant is buzzy, the servers spend ample time with each table but work quickly between orders, and diners range from tourists from all corners of the world to local father and daughter, all prepared to dine on simple yet flavorful Tuscan fare in a hectic but convivial setting. The prices are moderate and the menu is massive. Pasta choices are endless, but after chatting with Chiara, I go on her suggestion to order one of the six or so plates of the day. This evening the pasta is linguine with a sauce made from three different varieties of clams, fresh from the Tuscan seaside, and zucchini from a nearby farm. After glimpsing a board of salami and succulent figs pass by our intimate table in the second room, we opt for the ficchi as well. Figs are one of my absolute favorite foods, (if you follow my instagram, you know that during the summer months my feed is a repetitive assortment of figs), and as they are a fleeting specialty, not even available via importation in the off-months, I know that I will be savoring the last of the season’s figs for the duration of the week.

The aforementioned fig dish arrives, and I devour the Italian green fruits with their juicy, garnet-colored centers. There is also a sort of toasted bread/fig creation; a delectable specialty that we use to soak up superb Tuscan olive oil. My mamma orders the fagioli with pomodori and shrimp. It is simple and good, but I prefer my perfectly al dente linguine. The flavors and texture of the clams and their sauce are outstanding; not overly salty, not overly fishy, not overly chewy. I clean my plate, knowing full well that I could handle a second bowl.

For dessert, we turn to our amiable waiter, who has only one suggestion: the torta di schiaccata con l’uva. This Sangiovese grape tart is a Tuscan specialty. The grapes are in high form in September, and my mom’s sweet tooth leans towards the tart. I am intrigued by the crostata with frutti di bosco, as my sweet tooth is somewhat more traditional, and I am determined to eat every last summer berry before the first freeze. As a solution to our indecisiveness, we order meta e meta, half of each, the most genius idea that should be used for all dessert menus across the world.

We are more than satisfied with both tarts; they are each some of the best dessert we have had in ages. The flaky crust is baked to perfection, the grapes are tart, the berries are sweet and juicy, and the custard is thick but not too rich. The last bites are gone in sixty seconds, and we could easily have more. Our waiter laughs and finds another fast solution: the other meta e meta.

Chiara and her husband check on us during our dinner, and Chiara, as sweet as could be for the matron of a highly popular, ever-busy trattoria, has more than enough time to proudly show me a few highlights of her family’s restaurant. She points out a paw-print on the arched ceiling, and she tells me the story of how the 15th century brick was not yet set when a dog walked over it. She walks me upstairs to the intimate room overlooking the double-height main dining room. She even allows me to photograph her good-humored chefs in the open kitchen. I step to the side as servers dart past me with thick wooden boards laden with bistecca all fiorentina, grande enough to make the table legs wilt. With a soft voice and the most pleasant demeanor, Chiara gives us a kiss on each cheek and thanks us for choosing Cammillo, a show of genuine appreciation that sets the pace for the week ahead. Not only are the Florentine people generous with their time and conversation, they are sincere and heartfelt in their interactions and relationships- no matter if you are strangers at the airport gate or well-acquainted patrons at a trattoria. Cammillo’s lively atmosphere, gracious hosts, and excellent food prepared simply but with subtle hints of creative twists and flavors, is the perfect start to a wonderful week in Florence. It is no wonder that the trattoria has been packed for nearly 80 years.

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Wall of cartoons at Cammillo.

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The first dining room at Cammillo: there are four separate rooms, one upstairs. At 7:30, those without a reservation begin a line at the door.

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Salami, beautiful local ficchi, and a small serving of a bready/figgy creation.

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I chose one of the ‘piatti del giorno’ based on owner Chiara’s suggestion: linguine with sauce from three different varieties of clams and zucchini.

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Fagioli with pomodori and shrimp. The menu is extensive; it is insanely difficult to make a decision. I suggest ordering any or all of the six special plates of the day. They are guaranteed to be made with the freshest, seasonal ingredients.

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Cooks nella cucina, and a bistecca big enough to make the wooden table legs waver.

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Classico: parmigiano and caprese.

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At the pass at Cammillo.

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Meta e meta for dessert. We couldn’t decide between the fruit tarts, so we opted for half of each: schiacciata con l’uva (a tart grape crostata made with Sangiovese grapes) and frutti di bosco (wild berries).

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We devoured our halves so quickly, we decided to have the other halves.

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A piece of ancient history on the ceiling: when the bricks were still wet, a dog accidentally walked across one.

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A little bit of everything at Cammillo.

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Outside Cammillo in the Oltrarno.


Trattoria Cammillo: Borgo S. Jacopo, 57/r, 50125 Florence, Italy


Firenze nella luce del mattino

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Buildings aglow on the Arno.

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Porticoes without people in the early morning.

I have waited months and weeks and days for this trip to finally arrive. I have sent countless emails to hoteliers, restaurants, bloggers, and friends. I have spent hours on review sites. I have made pages of lists and notes. Now that I am finally in Florence, and I can feel the sun gently streaming in behind the curtains, and I can hear the odd passerby on the narrow cobblestoned street, I do not want to waste one minute.

Mornings are my favorite time of day. More precisely, I yearn for the single hour just after the sun rises but before the people steadily fill the streets. Before cars whizz by, before stores open, before the majority of the city washes its hair and makes its bed and begins another day. This is my walking time, my exploring time, my photographing time. This is my looking around time, my noticing things time, my discovery time. I make note of streets that I want to walk down again, stores that I want to re-visit, vantage points that I want to photograph again and again.

Even the Ponte Vecchio is void of its usual hoards. The ancient viaduct feels as if it is resting. As the sun rises over its crest, it is taking a large breath; building up strength for another day of jewelry-shoppers and visitors vying for a path along the merchant-lined bridge.

Florence, like many Italian cities and provinces, seems to be made for this hour. The yellow and orange buildings are aglow. They reflect off of the Arno, their beauty as humble as their people. Locals are jogging along the river, through the shadowy streets past favorite cafes and on to Piazzale Michelangelo, or perhaps upwards towards the ‘Poggi’ roads, a neighborhood of winding serpentine streets lined with private residences; a picturesque setting with tall grasses and mystical views over the entire city.

I can walk down the center of Via Tornabuoni, my eyes darting left and right at the luxurious window displays. I criss-cross, ogling over Italian designer clothing, jewelry, and glassware. I am impressed by Florentine entryways, elaborate doorknobs on oversized doors, and garages that resemble fortresses. Muted-toned shutters and endless archways, flower pots and overhanging growth on balconies, statues, towers, cathedrals… the Florentines leave no detail behind. Architecture, aesthetics, gardening, stonework, and design are so clearly a priority to each and every person. I spot not one piece of litter. Florentines take pride in their small city. They live in beauty and vie to keep Florence a gem, and with great generosity inherent to the Florentine people, they share their city with the millions of tourists who fill their cobblestoned streets each year.

As I wander farther from the center, past the Museo Stefano Bardini, I see a group of Florentines placing a wooden rowboat in the river. They push and pull down the center of the Arno, their arms tanned, their eyes alight with il sole. What a glorious way to enjoy this morning hour, from the center of the water. The light follows them as they glide past me, and I watch them grow smaller as I make my way towards a cafe join the rising Florentines for a cappuccino. As I stand at the bar, listening to the patter of cups on saucers, I wonder why there aren’t more Florentines wandering their empty city in the glowing morning hour, soaking in the place that, with buona fortuna, they call home.

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Santa Trinita Bridge

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Elegance from head to toe around Via Tornabuoni

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Il sole casting shadows

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Crossing bridges

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Italians wear orange so well.

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Morning rowing on the Arno.

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Empty porticoes along the Arno.

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Via Tornabuoni

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Bottega nella mattina.

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Museo Stefano Bardini

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Firenze nella mattina

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Sleeping motorbikes.

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The Duomo in the morning shadows.

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Detailed doors.

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Morning light on the Arno

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Mornings on the Arno.

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Yellows and oranges on the Arno.

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At the beginning of Via Tornabuoni.

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Villa Cora: Just five minutes from Florence, serenity and superb service await

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The spectacular piscina at Villa Cora

villa cora Admittedly, we wavered about staying outside of the city center. We wanted to walk out the door and experience the heart of Florence with all five senses, yet we wondered if it might be something of a treat to escape the crowds. Villa Cora plays the balancing act quite perfectly. The complimentary shuttle takes not even five minutes to reach the Arno, and as we drive up the hill on a mostly residential street, scattered with grand private villas, we feel as if we are going home, (daydreaming on vacanza is encouraged). It is quite special to be only minutes from the center, yet to return to such a tranquil, pristine property carefully strewn with flora and fragrant roses and an outdoor fitness center overlooking the property. We can indulge in an afternoon swim in the beautifully designed pool, with the most aesthetically pleasing pleated umbrellas and water that lapses over the rim like a calm waterfall. We can nurture our tired muscles in the underground spa. What is more humanizing than a sauna and a steam after a whirlwind day of shopping and art-seeing in the center?

Reading the room service menu, I gather that Villa Cora is a property for the wellness-inclined. There are green juices, detox and gluten-free options, organic, and whole wheat items. Italy is not often a place where one finds all of the above. Many cafes are yet to give in to ‘scremato,’ skim milk. At Villa Cora, one need not lose sight of their waistline simply because pasta, cured meats, and breakfast cakes abound. At the spa, guests can take advantage of London beauty guru Sarah Chapman’s products. There are Thai massages, water treatments, body wraps, a hammam, and extracts galore. One could stay a month at Villa Cora and still not exhaust the spa menu.

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Colazione at Villa Cora

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Villa Cora breakfast setting

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The breakfast room adjacent to la piscina

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Breakfast buffet at Villa Cora

Colazione a Villa Cora

For juicing, at Villa Cora

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Parmigiano at every meal, because we are in Italy, after all.

The villa itself was built in 1868 as a wedding gift from Gustavo Adolphus Baron Oppenheim to his bride, Eugenia Fenzi. Indeed from our perch in room 205, with our rose-scented bath products by Santa Maria Novella, our pristine white bathroom, and our canopy bed, I feel a bit like a princess, or at least an aristocrat of some sort. I envision Signora Eugenia looking out the picture window over all of Florence, breathing in fresh Tuscan air, yet only a few minutes from the country’s finest dressmakers and the Boboli gardens. The pink and light green fabrics that adorn our room on the themed ‘Rose Floor’ bring the outdoors in; the greens mesh into the treetops, the pinks perfectly resemble the roses that line the property.

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As if walking all over Florence is not enough, at Villa Cora one can indulge in traditional exercise overlooking the property.

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La piscina

IMG_5003 The mansion is undeniably ornate; it is filled with grand rooms and grander furniture, and when the hotel is not hosting one of many weddings or events, (it is also a favorite for photographers and set designers; many a fashion photo shoot take place at Villa Cora, even one outside our window one morning), the large rooms filled with 19th century furniture feel a tad formal. I wonder how many people sit down at the straight-backed velvet chairs in the dining room during their stay. I myself would much prefer to relax in a lounge chair by the pool.

Nevertheless, these eclectically decorated rooms were in high usage during the time of Villa Oppenheim as the mansion became a setting for the city’s greatest social gatherings. Guests included Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugenie.  Apparently, Oppenheim’s bride required more than grand social gatherings and a picture perfect view; she could not keep her adultery a secret from Oppenheim, and in thespian fashion, he threatened to blow up the Villa, (a trifle histrionic if you ask me, but I suppose marriage counseling was less fashionable those days).

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Roses line the pebbled pathways at Villa Cora

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La spa at Villa Cora

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The lounge at Villa Cora’s spa

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Massage room at Villa Cora

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The Thai massage room at Villa Cora

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The Thai massage room at Villa Cora

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This underground hallway connects the main villa to the spa and pool dining room

IMG_4999 Post the Oppenheims, Villa Cora became home to ex-empress Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III, who maintained a more innocent love affair; this time with roses. Thus the name of the second floor. Subsequent fascinating characters in history lived in Villa Cora, all contributing to the property’s worldliness. Twelve years ago, the mansion was bought by the president of Whythebest Hotels’ group, Antonella Gatti Fratini. Antonella and Sandro Fratini restored the villa to its original splendor with the intention of presenting it as a luxury hotel. The furnishings have been uniquely designed based on original drawings, and they are joined by antique pieces in both the halls and the private rooms. The Grand Hotel Villa Cora re-opened in 2011 after a long, detailed restoration.

The rooms are comfortable yet certainly remind one of the Villa’s most celebrated time. They vary in size; ours was not large, but it was certainly beautiful. The shower was oversized, and the entrance hall allowed for two large closets. If I had to nitpick, I would question the lack of hooks and surfaces in the bathroom. There was not a designated place to hang my lush bathrobe, thoughtfully embroidered with a rose.

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Our lovely room on the Rose Floor

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The canopy bed and embroidered bedding at Villa Cora

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Our washroom

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Beautiful white marble in our bagno at Villa Cora

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19th century details at Villa Cora

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On the second floor, it is all about roses and femininity. The bath products are rose-scented by Santa Maria Novella, and our turn-down goodies one night was a sweet little bag of jellybeans.

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If we still sent postcards, this would be mine: the view from our window on the second floor.

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One of the many main rooms in the Villa

Beyond the exquisite pool and the mesmerizing 360 degree views from the fifth floor rooftop, the service at Villa Cora is exemplary. The staff are incredibly helpful, welcoming, friendly, and accommodating, as are most all Florentines. With only 48 rooms, the property feels intimate and molto tranquilla, and the staff respond to every request with calm speed. In fact, I am almost certain that if I had asked for a gold hook to be affixed to our bathroom wall so that I could hang my bathrobe, they would have a silent drill in hand within seconds.

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From Villa Cora’s fifth floor rooftop, mesmerizing 360 degree views of Florence and Tuscan treetops

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Views from the roof deck at Villa Cora

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Afternoon refreshments in the lobby at Villa Cora; heavenly cookies and refreshing fruit and cucumber infused water.

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Afternoon refreshments in the lobby: seasonal fruit infused water.

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Instead of an old-fashioned reception counter, check-in takes place in these velvet chairs designed after the Villa’s 19th century furniture

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A Glance at Notting Hill

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Westbourne Grove galleries and boutiques. Notting Hill holds dear to its quirkiness and character wherever it can.

Yes, yes, go to Portobello Market. Call it ‘moseying’ if you must, but a walk down this infamous road can feel a bit more disneyland than you likely intended. There are pastel houses and neon doors, and you can tell that once upon a time this was a truly special place, but now it is laden with tchotchki and knickknacks for tourists. You might be able to find the odd original piece if your patience withstands.

My idea of a lovely afternoon is ‘moseying’ around the quiet, picturesque streets that drape across Westbourne Grove, the fashionable main shopping street for Londoners, complete with contemporary and designer stores, home furnishing spots, galleries, and casual eateries. The homes in the area are pastel and pristine, the cafes and eateries plentiful (including the crowd favorite, Ottolenghi, complete with constant queue), and the boutiques are of interest and originality. Venture beyond the main roads; chances are you will discover loads of examples of how the next generation is modernizing their unique northwest neighborhood whilst keeping a firm grasp on its roots and personality.

A rather embarrassing short list of suggestions- admittedly, I need to spend a bit more time in the neighborhood myself…

-Ottolenghi, Ledbury Road

-Nama Foods 

-Daylesford, Organic Food, Westbourne Grove

-Brissi, Home Furnishing, Westbourne Grove

-Matches, Fashion, Ledbury Road

-Wolf & Badger, Fashion and Jewellery, Ledbury Road

 

Portobello road

At the start of Portobello Road, paint testing before the crowds thicken.

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Quirky Portobello Road

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On Portobello Road

Off Portobello Road

Just off Portobello Road

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On Westbourne Grove

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Off Ledbury Road

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Outside Ottolenghi on Ledbury Road; as soon as I left, the queue was out the door as per standard Saturday procedure.

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Goodies at Ottolenghi.

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Very patient staff at Ottolenghi.

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Sublime food and gorgeous arrangements at Ottolenghi on Ledbury Street.

Ottolenghi, Notting Hill

Ottolenghi, Notting Hill

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Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill

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Inside view at 202 on Westbourne Grove, a shop cum casual cafe.

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Pops of color on Westbourne Grove.

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Pastel streets of Notting Hill

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Where it all began: Ottolenghi Notting Hill

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Glorious colors in Notting Hill.

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Notting Hill

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At Nama Foods in Notting Hill: a vegan, raw foods cafe.

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Inside Nama Foods.


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SHED Healdsburg

Originally posted on Tavola Del Mondo:

The Shed Healdsburg www.tavoladelmondo.com

The Shed Healdsburg www.tavoladelmondo.com

The SHED only recently opened in the early spring of 2013, but it has already made its mark in the restaurant-infused town of Healdsburg. One part cafe, one part market, one part gardening shop, SHED is a novel idea in the realm of ‘farm to table’ concepts. It is a spacious glass structure with massive garage doors at the front of the building, kept open throughout the day to demonstrate a natural fusion between nature and food, producers and consumers, gardeners and tools.

The Shed Healdsburg www.tavoladelmondo.com

Salmon tartare on a bed of farm fresh lettuce

Their small menu changes daily based on what is available at local farms, thus it is guaranteed to be fresh and thoughtfully crafted. Shoppers, grazers, and diners alike can stand next to the chefs as they prep ingredients and shovel handmade pizzas into the oven. Once seated in a shady spot on the side patio, I opted for…

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Rome: Seen, Heard, and Gesticulated

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The hills of Monti.

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Una bellissima vista.

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Villa Borghese

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Il mercato.

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Those rails are not very comfortable; I tried this spot many times but could not last longer than tre minuti.

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Il mercato.

CIMG1929Scenes that can be seen on any old day in Roma… tutti giorni è un fotografico. CIMG2104 CIMG2114 CIMG2125 CIMG2282 www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com www.tavoladelmondo.com Annalee Archie

Summer in the City (Weekends in the country)

This summer has been more akin to early September, and I am so enjoying the light breeze, the resilient sun, and the humidity-free weather. Weekdays feel quiet in Manhattan, with the exception of lower 7th avenue on Thursday and Friday afternoons, which is a perfectly locked stretch of impatient drivers eager to escape the city for greener pastures and cleaner waters. It is no wonder that dinner reservations are easier to come by.

Mornings at the Union Square Green Market are relaxing and sweet; first came the berries, then the apricots, and now the tables burst with heirloom tomatoes and deep purple plums and eggplants. Each week is a variation on a theme, a theme which I will never fall out of love with.

Evenings are long, and along with our jackets, we have long since shed the anxiousness to get home. Dinners at favorite neighborhood restaurants are drawn out, followed by cobblestone saunters in step with dusk. Aimless walks take on a different perspective on summer nights; I constantly notice something new or different. Federal-style townhomes and hidden gardens evoke a changed character in the warm summer light.

Below is a catch-all photo diary of the past few weeks, out and about in the West Village and its environs, as well as a few from recent weekends in Connecticut. The story connecting the photos is nothing more than summer contentedness; a feeling that can only be experienced via the simplest pleasures of this season. I suppose it goes to show that we want for little and we do not need much to wake up with a smile: the arrival of heirloom tomatoes and the smell of salty sea air is often ample.

Picks in this post:

Il Buco- Bond Street

ABC Kitchen

Navy- Sullivan Street

Three Lives & Co Bookstore- W 10th Street

Bluestone Lane- Greenwich Ave

Buvette- Grove Street

Terra- Tribeca

Union Square Greenmarket

Maison Premiere- Williamsburg

Bar Room at the Modern

VSF West Village- Florist on W 10th Street

Jefferson Market Garden- Greenwich Ave

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Straight from the farm: Connecticut strawberries, green pepper, tomatoes, and cucumber. Sprouts from the Union Square Green Market.

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Rise and shine Washington Square Park.

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Just one of the freshest, most colorful lentil salads ever, with yummy beet hummus, from Bluestone Lane on Greenwich Ave; the new ever-popular Australian cafe in the village.

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Saucy eggs and sugar plums.

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Every girl needs a port in the storm; mine is Buvette on Grove Street.

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July evening on the patio at Maison Premiere, a gem of an oyster restaurant in Williamsburg. The fish is fantastically fresh.

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Crab toast at the bar at ABC Kitchen.

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Roasted carrot and avocado salad at ABC Kitchen.

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The Bar Room at the Modern.

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Chocolate and coffee dome at the Bar Room at the Modern. The black bass with fennel and the crispy chicken were both divine.

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Noon scenes at Why Not Coffee on Christopher Street.

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Preparing for service at Navy on Sullivan Street.

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The menu at Navy is ever-changing (literally every day), but on this July evening, the crudo was Le Tigre.

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One of the freshest and lightest steak entrees in all of downtown at Navy: summer greens and peaches tossed over perfectly cooked steak.

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It’s not easy to find a quiet spot in Manhattan. Thus my fondness for Jefferson Market Garden.

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One of my favorite dishes of the summer: mussel toast at Navy on Sullivan Street.

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VSF West Village: one of my happy places in the neighborhood.

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Where is the land that grows figs all year round? Organic fruit and walnuts over greek yogurt.

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Predictable and unoriginal snack.

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No fuss weeknight supper: lobster, shrimp, arugula, white nectarine, and green beans.

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Morning light.

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The sun was trying to come out.

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Window seat.

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Farm lunch.

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I had a craving for something sweet: this mini crumble couldn’t be simpler. I mixed peaches with lemon juice and cinnamon, then poured on oats, ground flax, cinnamon, and a pinch of quinoa flour. I baked for about 40 minutes, et voila.

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The first morning that the peaches were finally sweet: Sunday oats with local fruit.

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Gardening.

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A vista that never gets old.

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The sun is already shifting in the evenings; I can feel September in the distance.

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Who is that doggy in the doorway?

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Everybody likes a window seat.

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Aperol spritz at Buvette.

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Summer evenings at Buvette.

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A colorful morning at Bondhitree at Union Square Greenmarket.

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Eggplant stories at Bondhitree at Union Square Greenmarket

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More eggplant varieties.

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Frutta fresca.

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Ficchi and apricots.

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Appreciation guaranteed with these two gifts: Van Leeuwen non-dairy dark chocolate and Jenis brambleberry crisp. Later served with chocolate angel food cake.

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My favorite corner in all the land.

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Couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for a late outdoor lunch at Il Buco, complete with their famous kale salad and the sweetest plate of local tomatoes.

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Perfection at Il Buco on Bond Street.

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Simple nicoise salads, beets, and broccoli rabe at Terra in Tribeca.

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Molto fresh and light crudo at Il Buco.

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Glorious fig.

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Peak season: giant kiwis, juicy blackberries, sweet melon, and ripe black mission figs. August, you’re not so bad.

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Ripe, ripe, ripe.

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Citrusy tomato, avocado, and basil salad.

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Heaping salad. Kale, arugula, parsley, and red leaf. Melon, plum, and scallions. White and purple beans.

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Lemon Cake Topped with Strawberries and Pistachios

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Lemon cake with a strawberry and pistachio hat.

Now that New England farms seem to have recovered from the harshest of harsh winters, and summer fruits are abundant and most importantly, ripe, I can’t help but plan each recipe-test around Saturday’s finest from the local farm-stand. On this occasion, though I was hoping for raspberries in order to try Bon Appetit‘s June 2014 recipe, I used what was left of the strawberries. If strawberries are not in season, buy frozen organic strawberries; they are just as sweet once defrosted. The pistachios are for crunch and color, and the cake itself is meant to be lemony-light and therefore multi-purpose: sweet and fruity for a none-too-heavy breakfast alongside yogurt, as an accompaniment to afternoon tea, and/or as a summer evening dessert a la mode.

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Batter poured and strawberries ever so gently simmering with lemon juice and a sprinkle of light brown sugar.

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Gently brush the cake with the juices from the strawberry pan.

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Ingredients:

3/4 cup Brown Rice Flour

3/4 Cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp kosher salt

Scant 1 cup light brown sugar

2 tsp pure organic vanilla extract

4 Eggs

2 tbsp. finely grated lemon zest

Juice from at least half a large lemon

3/4 cup olive oil

About 1/2 cup sliced strawberries, more or less if you please

3 tbsp. chopped unsalted raw pistachios
Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Oil or lightly butter a 9″ diameter cake pan. I assume that you can also use a loaf pan, but doing so might change the baking time.

In a small bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, and salt.

In an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar for about five minutes, until light and fluffy. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla and 1 tbsp. lemon juice. Then slowly add the oil until just combined. Add the flour mixture in thirds; do not add it all at once. Then fold in the lemon zest. Feel free to add more lemon juice to the bowl here, depending on how strong you prefer the lemon flavor.

Pour the batter into the pan and top with the sliced strawberries and chopped pistachios. If you like, scatter a little light brown sugar over the top. Bake for about 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserts into the center comes out clean.

Close to finishing time, in a small pan, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice and a handful of strawberries over medium heat. If you would like, you can add a pinch of sugar here as well, or maybe a small bit of honey. Use a wooden spoon to gently slosh around the strawberries so that a syrup forms.

Once the cake is baked, set it on a drying rack in its cake pan. I used a pan with a removable bottom, but it far easier to remove once the cake has cooled. While still hot, use a brush to brush the strawberry and lemon syrup over the cake. Allow to cool.