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Jul 6, 2013 06:35 PM

Long Report: Three Weeks in Rome, Umbria and Venice with Two Kids (7&10)


A few months back I posted a request for help under "Rome with a Wiggleworm". I wanted to thank you for your helpful advice, and post some of my experiences for parents headed to Italy with children. Elizabeth's app and Rome Digest were my go-to sources. It was a magical experience for all four of us - Italians are so kind to children, it made me really appreciate that aspect of their culture.

First, the few elements that made the most difference:

1. A kitchen - we had a kitchen everywhere we stayed. Our Rome hotel also had a dining terrace, which was a really wonderful asset and gave my wiggly son a place to play. All our breakfasts were at home.
2. A deck of playing cards - it kept the kids entertained, and my son mostly still(!), during meal service, particularly at nicer restaurants.
2. An agriturismo - Our excellent Umbria agriturismo Colle San Paolo conducted an art camp that our kids loved. It also meant we could explore small towns and have a yummy lunch at our leisure before picking them up at 3 pm.

* Day One - We started at Gelateria Del Teatro (outstanding - we went there many times). As it was Sunday I cooked at home. Watching the birds fly and sun set on the buildings surrounding our deck was a wonderful start to our trip.
* Day Two - During our excellent tour with Rome Driving Tours, we did a pit stop for lunch at forno at Campo de Fiori. The market wasn't great, but there were some nice strawberries to be had. Later we headed to Volpetti, recommended to us by our favorite salami shop in San Francisco. The owner who knew our salami buddies was there, and he's a bigger ham than the hocks hanging in his shop. The kids loved tasting everything and posing for silly photos with him. We bought too much and headed home for a great dinner.
* Day Three - Lunch at Chiostro del Bramante, which was lovely, quiet, convenient, delicious and quick. Dinner was at pizzaria Da Remo, where I intended to get a shot of the pizza with buffalo mozzarella but it was gone before I could press the shutter!
* Day Four - Lunch at Caffe Camerino, where my husband tried the Caffe Completo. After some failed attempts at finding a sitter, we took a deep breath and took our kids to Glass Hostaria. We shouldn't have worried - the staff couldn't have been more gracious, and the chef Christina is such a kind, interesting person (she stopped us on a street a few days later to say hello). We really enjoyed talking to her, and she sent the kids a free course a few minutes later. The look on my daughter's face when she had the ravioli with five-year-aged parmesan was priceless. The meal was excellent, and we also liked that Glass had a slightly casual vibe that made the presence of our kids (and our slightly casual attire, as we packed very lightly) more comfortable.
* Day Five - After our tour of the Vatican, I had planned to go to Pizzarium, but the heat was so intense my family was threatening mutiny. So we had a very nice lunch at Romeo (the Glass/Roscioli joint venture) and gelato at Vice Cafe instead. In the afternoon we did a food tour with Gina Tringali - fun, delicious, and one of the highlights of our trip for our daughter, who at this point is becoming utterly obsessed with food in Italy.
Day Six - Lunch at Armando al Pantheon - we not only polished off our meals, we finished the kids' pasta too. Perfect. "Why is all the food in Italy better?," my daughter asked.
Day Seven - Lunch again at Chiostro with friends, then off to Umbria, where we were invited to a dinner fundraiser for the small town's church. The scene was lively, and it was lovely to watch the kids play soccer with local kids in the piazza. (What bedtime?)
Our agriturismo had great recommendations. Restaurants included Taverna del Perugino in Citta della Pieve and notably Lillo Tatini in Panicale, where the food was delicious and a little imaginative, and the service very warm. Lillo also has a large table in its downstairs wine cellar that's perfect for families. We went truffle hunting and one night enjoyed a wonderful private wine tasting dinner at Querciolana estate--the kids played in the rain in the courtyard.
We did a cooking class with Nonna Ciana outside Siena. Our kids enjoyed their roles, got to play in the garden and were showered with hugs and attention at the delicious dinnertime.
First night was at La Bottega Ai Promessi Sposi, where we particularly enjoyed the appetizer of tiny fried shrimp. Second night was at a cooking class with Marika in Lido - also delicious. Final night was at Osteria Alle Testiere, which lived up to its reputation. The raw langoustines were outstanding - better than any amaebi sushi I've ever had, and I've had some pretty great sushi - and my daughter downed her small grilled lobster in seconds.

This ended up being quite long - thanks for hanging in there! It was more than delicious - it really led to thoughtful conversations about food and culture. Thanks for letting me share.

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  1. what a fabulous report! you have conveyed so clearly all the fabulous experiences you had and how great the trip was for your kids -- and it sure sounds as though your daughter is a budding Chowhound!

    1 Reply
    1. re: GretchenS

      Thank you! Our son had a great time too but I felt our older daughter was at the better age to appreciate everything happening on the trip. And yes she loves food!

    2. Glad to see that you included Umbria in your travels - and it seems like you really got into the "country life" as well! ;-)

      3 Replies
      1. re: LifeItalianStyle

        We really did. We were supposed to go truffle hunting the day before but it was pouring. We headed to our car only to realize it was totally stuck in the mud. This was particularly troubling as our guide is prince and lives alone in a castle (really more a complex) at the top of a hill. Stranded in a thunderstorm at a castle at night - it was right out of a bad horror movie or Scooby Doo. We ran around the many seemingly empty buildings hollering for help until the prince emerged with a towel wrapped around his head - he was showering - and kindly got his truck and bailed us out. Later the kids were shocked to learn our hero was a prince - he didn't look like the guys in Disney movies. What a night!

        1. re: sfmom

          Unfortunately we in Umbria did have A LOT of rain this year - but it looks like you at least got a funny story out of it to remember! ;-)

          1. re: LifeItalianStyle

            Actually we felt so fortunate with the weather. It was beautiful most days, not hot at all. It rained in the day only once when we were there. It was lovely. And so few tourists!

      2. What a fantastic and detailed report! Thanks so much for taking the time to report back in. This helps so much for future travellers!

        9 Replies
        1. re: minchilli

          Thank you! All the recommendations we used were great. My husband is practically ready to move there.

          1. re: sfmom

            I'd love to know how you responded to your daughter's question as to why all the food in Italy is better. (I agree with her conculsion, and am curious as to the explanation.)

            1. re: barberinibee

              I told her at the time it was because I had done all this research and was taking her to delicious places. It was only later that I realized I was wrong, and it was a subject we discussed a lot as we got further into our trip. What is amazing about Italy's food culture is its resulting ubiquity, a place where one could find tasty, healthy, affordable food and produce most anywhere one went.

              In my own nonstudied opinion, it's a reflection of values. America is far more efficient, far more embracing of novelty, both of which has helped make us an economic and cultural powerhouse but neither of which translates into great, or even good, food. Italians seem to expect, and get, great food, and I loved that the expectation seemed, to me, relatively free of the class/political dimensions we get mired in here.

              As a mother trying to feed my children healthy food on a regular basis, it's easy to become almost angry with how it is here, with processed junk and fast food shoved under my kids noses everywhere, every single day. I loved that in Italy, I could be Mrs. Yes instead of Mrs. No.

              1. re: sfmom

                Thanks very much for your reply.

                I absolutely agree with you that the overemphasis on novelty in America robs food and eating of its deep satisfaction. It is also my experience that a lot of food in Italy is grown not very far from where you are eating it, which makes an astounding difference in flavor. People will argue that Rome is a fraud in that respect (or Venice), that urban food in industrialized and not local, but I do think that restaurants that care do procure flavorful food from very nearby places. It is an incredible education to eat food that has ripened naturally. (So your research paid off!)

                For the past two weeks in Italy, the apricot trees outside my apartment have been dropping ripe fruit, onto the grass, where they bake in the sun until I spot them and eat them. This is like eating warm jam! A friend of mine told me they were reading in an American newspaper yesterday that apricots are a "superfood" -- but only in season, and ripe. Why don't more Americans who own homes plant native fruit trees? It is really something to share the same air, rain and sunshine with a food that you eat when it is ripe.

                So I think an imported "Mediterranean diet" can't be the salvation of America. What would really make a difference would be giving up those suburban lawns and replacing them with fruits and veg that thrive in the local environment. (And if the deer arrive, put up a fence or grow things on the roof! Colonial farmers never would have dreamed of not fencing their veg gardens). Americans need to create a local native American cuisine from the ground up.

                It is also the case in Italy that children are not so segregated from the working life of adults. Where I shop and eat in restaurants, the young children of the proprietors are always around. They play and watch TV, but they see everything being made, and occasionally they are pressed into service to fetch this or that. By the time they are adults, they understand food and flavors second nature -- how something should smell when it is done, how it should feel, look, what goes with what in what season.

                What I also love about eating in Italy is how few ingredients can be deployed to make a wonderful meal. American cooking is an overload of clashing flavors and sauces. The truth is that people -- even Americans -- like the taste of beans, or a simple good soup. There is something joyous about uncomplicated food, and it is so rarely available on American menus anymore.

                1. re: barberinibee

                  I suspect the novelty and the overload of flavors is compensating for poorer ingredients. We love choice, but our choices are individually not as good. I also meant "novelty" in the sense that there was as belief that technology could make everything better - we can now grow tomatoes that can be shipped thousands of miles, but what a sacrifice we made to do so.

                  We live in San Francisco so not a lot of outdoor space to grow our own (though maybe I should squeeze something in!), but we get a weekly box of produce from a farm a couple of hours away. I pay, dearly, for pastured eggs and also bring the kids with me to the farmer's market on summer weekends for more. And despite all that, I thought the produce and eggs I bought in Italy were as good, or better, for a fraction of what I pay here. And let's not talk about the meat and cheese!

                  1. re: sfmom

                    Among my enduring memories of living in California, both north and south, is how much food is growing on the roadsides and in parking lots that nobody eats! Huge bushes of rosemary, olive trees, banana trees, walnuts, nettles, blackberries, cactus tuna. etc. All of it regarded as decorative or weeds. Nobody in Italy would let so many edibles go to waste. I don't know if you noticed in Rome how many people have fruits or tomato plants growing on their balconies.

                    Last time I stayed in SF I stayed in a quirky b&b in Noe Valley that had a nice vegetable garden, where I was invited to gather microgreens for salads. It was not very far from La Ciccia, which I thought very tasty restaurant because the Italian owners are holding close to ancestral values in their food. If you haven't eaten there, I highly recommend it (although stick to the main offerings and not their pizza, which I have heard isn't their forte).

                    I think novelty for the sheer sake of novelty is also a problem in American food culture, apart from agribusiness techno "progress." Some of the appetite for novelty is a direct outgrowth of such a rich immigrant culture, but there is also this idea that eating the same thing for days in a row would be poverty, or something a sophisticated eater wouldn't do. I gather American parents are now expected to produce 30 or more unique meals per month, from an internet-full of recipes. I don't think people develop their tastebuds that way.

                    1. re: barberinibee

                      I haven't eaten at La Ciccia - your post reminded me I often don't eat at such restaurants in SF as they are rarely child friendly, and these days I rarely am willing to fork over the extra $80 in babysit fees for a meal.

                      But Italy has inspired me. Despite Yelp's warning that this restaurant is not appropriate for kids, as it would say of probably 85% of the restaurants reviewed there, I have forged ahead made a reservation for my family (at an unfashionably early hour). Let's see how authentically Italian this place really is!

                      1. re: sfmom

                        Hope you have a good time. When I ate there, I called ahead because I have a friend who has mobility problems, and they were very friendly and appreciative my cluing them in. We ended up with a generously sized circular table in the rear of the restaurant that was quite comfortable despite being near the kitchen. Service was all around sweet.

                        The kitchen is Sardinian, so if you don't know the cuisine and its specialties, good to look it up ahead. They have "carta di musica" -- the paper thin bread the size of sheets of music -- that your kids might find amusing. The kitchen gets the most applause for seafood and I believe its cured meats, which run out early, so you'll have the advantage there. I especially liked their fregola (an Israeli couscous like tiny balls of pasta) but they serve it with some strong flavors (bottarga or sea urchin).

                        La Ciccia has attracted some SF Chowhounder fans who are repeat visitors, so they might give you tips on ambience and ordering this season's best. Hope you'll report how it was for you and your family on the SF area board.

        2. This is a wonderful post thank you. We will be in Rome next summer with kids for the first time, although second time for DH and I .

          1 Reply
          1. re: photojunkie

            You are so welcome. I have been urging friends with kids to go. It was such an amazing trip, we are already talking about returning to the area next summer. Have a great time!

          2. I just realized I somehow left out our two visits to the Roscioli bakery. The baker behind a large glass window goofed around with the kids and even came out for a second to interact with them. My kids loved it so much they demanded we return. It was moments like this that made the trip so special. If you are a parent, bring your kids here!