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Cultural Attractions, History, Hotels, Museums

Evora: The Alentejo’s Capital City

October 27, 2017

The Vasco da Gama bridge led us away from lively Lisbon to the rural beauty of the Alentejo.

An easy 90- minute drive southeast of Lisbon takes you to the expansive Alentejo region. Home to medieval villages, castles, palaces, pousadas, megaliths, wine producers, and vast agricultural lands, this beautiful area has something to please nearly all visitors. We made Evora, the capital of the region, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our headquarters. This delightful small city is a great base from which to launch day trips to the many attractions in the area.

The Alentejo’s capital city is best explored on foot– wearing comfortable shoes, of course.

Remember to look up as you wander!

The historic city of Evora has interesting sites and several museums to explore. Just walking the winding streets is a fine way to spend a day, especially in the area around the Largo Conde de Vila Flor. After a pleasant stroll through the Praca do Giraldo, Evora’s bustling main square, we considered our options.

The busy Praca do Giraldo is at the heart of the city. Numerous shopping streets fan off from the Praca.

Cork is king in the Alentejo and is featured in souvenirs from sandals to handbags.

Portuguese pottery is also a popular souvenir.

Time was short so we had to make choices.  We decided to save the Contemporary Art Museum for our next visit and headed over to the Museum of Evora, which was hosting a Chinese porcelain exhibition along with its permanent collections.

The Museum of Evora is housed in a former Episcopal palace built in the 17th century.

Beautiful Azulejos tiles line the stone staircase inside the museum.

Teapots, serving pieces, jewelry and other treasures from China are featured in the current exhibition at the museum.

Placards describe the fine Chinese porcelain plates on display in Portuguese and English.

The museum features paintings from the 15th through 19th centuries, drawings, engravings, 17th and 18th century furniture, and Roman sculpture from the 1st and 2nd centuries.

The museum is known for it’s 17th and 18th century painting and sculpture. This piece is by Antonio Teixeira Lopes.

Religious articles, like St. Blaise’s arm reliquary from the 17th century, are part of the permanent collection.

Visitors can see this striking bronze sculpture, statuary, mosaics and other artifacts from the Roman era.

Interesting archeological finds from the Neolithic Age and a collection of silver and gold religious pieces, and jewelry are also on display. There were few visitors on the day we were there.

Antiquities from numerous ancient civilizations are on view.

Artifacts from the Roman era line a courtyard hallway.

Just outside the museum is the Roman Temple from the 1st century AD. Today, the ruins are undergoing restoration and are under wraps, but it is possible to see several of the Corinthian columns.

The Roman Temple which dates from the 1st century is mentioned in all the guide books, but until the restoration is complete, there isn’t much to see.

There is a small park behind the temple that offers nice views over the area beyond Evora and across the way you’ll find a lovely pousada, once a monastery that is now an upmarket hotel called Pousada dos Loios. Feel free to wander inside and take a step back into Portugal’s past. The restaurant here is open to the public.

Here’s a peek at the courtyard and restaurant at Pousada dos Loios.

This small park behind the Roman Temple provided a nice place to relax and enjoy the views over the city and surrounding countryside.

Many people line up at Evora’s Church of St. Francis to visit the Chapel of the Bones or Capela dos Ossis. The 16th century chapel displays the bones and skulls of monks. We’ve seen the creepy Capuchin Crypt in Rome so felt no need to stop in after our visit to the church. The public gardens beside the church were much more appealing.

Inside the Church of St. Francis.

The Chapel of the Bones is a popular tourist attraction inside the Church of St. Francis.

If you have time, stop into Evora’s Cathedral or Se.  It’s one of the largest medieval cathedrals in Southern Portugal and is said to be built on the site of a former mosque.

Here are the marvelously mismatched spires of Evora’s cathedral.

Close to the Church of St. Francis, you’ll find Evora’s morning market.  The market is indoors and was smaller than some we’ve visited, but we also arrived fairly late in the morning after many of the vendors had closed up shop.  Happily, there were several purveyors of tasty cheeses, cured meats, and fruits and vegetables still open.

Many vendors had already packed up and gone home by the time we arrived at the market but there was still plenty to choose from.

Everything you need for a nice picnic is right here–local pork products, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses and other tasty treats.

Evora has lodging options to fit many budgets and preferences. We chose to stay at two very different, but both delightful properties in and near the city. We began our stay at the lovely Albergaria do Calvario, just inside the walls of the city www.hotel@albergariadocalvario.com.

 

We enjoyed our stay at the small, well-located Albergaria do Calvario.

Located just inside the ancient Roman walls, it was easy to walk all around the city and access the freeway quickly for daytrips from our hotel.

The location made it easy to walk to Evora’s important sites as well as to dinner each evening. It was also convenient to reach the freeway for our day trips further afield. We’ll discuss dining and day trips in additional posts.

The comfortable bar area welcomes guests for drinks and light bites.

Ours was a large, comfortable room with a big balcony overlooking the hotel’s courtyard where many guests enjoyed breakfast, aperitifs, and conversation. Rooms vary substantially in size so be sure to explore your options when booking.

Our room was large and bright with a huge balcony overlooking the courtyard.

The marble used here is mined nearby. There is a Museum of Marble in Vila VIcosa we”ll visit next time.

There is no restaurant per se in the hotel, but they do provide a substantial breakfast buffet and have small meals, snacks, and drinks on offer in the bar. Anything ordered can be enjoyed in the courtyard, the bar area or one of the comfortable sitting areas.

This is just a small part of the bountiful buffet breakfast greeting guests each morning.

The courtyard provides a pleasant place to enjoy breakfast, drinks, or just relax.

Friendly staff are happy to help with restaurant bookings, excursion ideas or whatever you need to make your stay memorable.

The staff is extremely helpful and will even park and retrieve your car for you. Parking is available onsite at no additional charge. Laundry service is also available at a very reasonable price. The only thing we missed at this charming, small hotel was a pool, but we got that at our next hotel–Convento Espinhero.

Welcome to the Convento do Espinheiro.

We also spent several nights about 15 kilometers outside of Evora at the stunning Convento do Espinheiro. The converted convent was built in 1458 and is managed by www.starwood.com. The property has traditional rooms in the original buildings as well as two modern wings.

We had a large room in the modern wing of the hotel, complete with a nice balcony.

We enjoyed our stay in the modern wing where we had a very large room with a balcony and views over the property towards to the inviting swimming pool. After nearly 10 days of non-stop touring it was the perfect place to take break.

The pool provided the perfect place for relaxation, lunch, drinks and a refreshing dip.

There is also an indoor pool and a nice spa on site where I enjoyed a relaxing massage. There are tours given daily of the expansive Convento which covers the property’s fascinating history.

Ancient olive trees dot the property which dates back to 1458.

These stone benches have been here since the property was a functioning convent.

The complimentary tour includes a visit to the beautiful church (which is still in use), monk’s cistern where a complimentary wine tasting is held each evening, the former dining area and kitchen, as well as the vaulted storage cellar which now houses the hotel’s terrific restaurant.

Convento Espinheiro was one of the three wealthiest convents in Portugal. The church is still in use today.

The bells, one original, ring out to announce a wedding has taken place.

The wine cellar is housed in the monk’s former cistern, which was once filled with water.

A complimentary wine tasting take place each evening at 6 p.m. in the wine cellar.

We ate dinner there each night of our stay. The food is artfully prepared and beautifully presented by top-notch staff. Be sure to reserve for dinner or prepare to be disappointed—the dining room fills up. Should you choose to go offsite for your dinner and prefer not to drive, the helpful staff can arrange for a taxi into Evora.

Fresh local fish elegantly prepared is served with flair.

Luscious lamb chops with squash puree are featured on the menu.

Save room for dessert.

Where monks once stored their wine, olive oil and honey, hotel guests now enjoy a bountiful breakfast buffet. It is possible to enjoy your morning repast out on one of the terraces or in the courtyard area, as we did.

The former storage for olive oil, wine and honey, now serves as the hotel’s elegant dining room.

We also arranged to see some of the traditional rooms including the “royal suite” used by many honeymoon couples. It is truly spectacular in a beautiful old-world way and features a  contemporary bathroom and private rooftop terrace.

The “royal suite” often used by honeymooners offers old world charm and opulence.

The suite’s bathroom features modern fixtures like this free standing tub.

A private rooftop terrace, one flight up from the suite provides glorious views of the area around the Convento.

Next up, we’ll explore the Alentejo.  Join us for a few day trips and a wine tasting.

 

 

 

 

California, Hotels, Napa Valley, Restaurants, Wineries

Downtown Napa Dining: Atlas Social + Torc + 1313 Main + Oenotri + Cadet

August 14, 2015

There are few vacations I find more relaxing than a trip to the Napa Valley. There are always new restaurants to try, old favorites to revisit, and of course wonderful wines to enjoy. The Napa Valley also offers plenty of shopping, spa experiences and interesting art.  But first, let’s eat.

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Atlas Social is a fun, new downtown venue.

Downtown Napa has come a long way in recent years and offers a wide range of delicious dining destinations that will fit most tastes and budgets. We started our culinary adventures with dinner at Atlas Social www.atlassocialnapa.com, which is operated by the same people who own Azzurro Pizzeria and Enoteca and the Norman Rose Tavern, both in downtown Napa.

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Inside Atlas Social.

Atlas Social, which opened in January 2015, has a casual vibe and a big, open dining room and bar area. The menu will appeal to locavores and fans of the farm to fork concept. The dishes, which range from snacks like their addictive Herb Leaf Fries with Meyer Lemon aioli ($6) to platters for a group, like the Garlic and Chili Roasted Whole Fish ($35), Spice Highway Chicken ($19/$35) and Grilled Hanger Steak ($36), are meant for sharing. They have an interesting and well-priced wine list that is all Californian except for a sparkling offering from France. Craft brew lovers won’t go thirsty either.  There are beers on tap from California and Oregon, large format beer offerings from the West Coast, and ciders and a few other imported beers in cans.

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Crunchy, crispy herb leaf fries with an addictive Meyer Lemon aioli.

We happily worked our way through the seasonally appropriate menu, sampling from all the categories—Farm, Sea, and Ranch plus those amazing fries. We ate the delicious shaved snap pea salad ($8), “angry” shrimp (I didn’t find them all that spicy) with basil, chilies and orange ($14), Masala chicken skewers ($10) and finished with the duck confit ($13), which was a very generous portion.

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The shaved snap pea, marcona almond, sieved egg + citrus vinaigrette salad was my favorite dish. Spectacular!

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Masala spiced chicken skewers with eggplant-pepper Muhammara + pine nut syrup were nicely seasoned.

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Duck confit with frisee, baby spinach, cherries and a pancetta vinaigrette was a hearty and very satisfying dish.

Aside from ordering more food than we should have, we were completely happy with our meal and would definitely return. Check their website www.atlassocialnapa.com for specials, winemaker diners, and other events and pop by for their “Social Experiment” AKA Happy Hour which runs daily from 3 to 6 p.m.

IMG_8320Our next delicious downtown dinner was at TORC www.torcnapa.com . We’ve dined here before and were looking forward to returning.

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TORC always seems to draw a crowd.

We’re glad we did. We got a great window table and started our evening with deviled eggs with pickled onions and bacon ($5). We’ve noticed deviled eggs popping up on many Northern Californian menus and we’re happy to sample them.

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Deviled eggs seem to be the dish du jour, appearing on many menus lately. These were really tasty.

TORC’s menu focuses primarily on locally raised, sustainable food and the menu changes frequently to ensure that diners are enjoying what’s fresh and available. After the deviled eggs, we shared a Jamon Iberico, romaine, and stone fruit salad ($15)—light and refreshing and the ham brought us back to Spain for at least a short time.

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Crisp romaine, succulent Jambon Iberico and stone fruits made a great sharable salad.

We had a gorgeous salmon with fresh peas, radishes and favas and the Alaskan halibut with morels, peas and shaved crispy artichoke ($29). Both dishes were sublime.

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This salmon dish captured all the flavors of early summer.

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Perfectly prepared halibut with morels and sugar peas.

A 2013 Keplinger Rose (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah) was a fine accompaniment for the meal.

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This Keplinger rose was just the right match for the meal.

We had excellent service and a delightful evening and left looking forward to another marvelous meal at TORC www.torcnapa.com.

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1313 Main www.1313main.com was new for us and definitely deserves a return visit. What began as a wine bar is now a fantastic full- fledged restaurant.  Even though there were plenty of people enjoying their meals on the Saturday night that we dined, the room was quiet enough for conversation and quite comfortable for a leisurely meal.

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1313 Main should be on your list of downtown Napa dinner spots.

After a complimentary amuse bouche, we began our meal in earnest with a flatbread “carta musica” topped with chevre, lettuces, radishes, raspberries and nasturtiums ($11).

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This flatbread was so beautifully presented, it looked almost too good to eat.

Champagne by Henri Goutorbe recommended by somm Bryan, made a festive and well-matched accompaniment.

Sommelier Bryan helped navigate the extensive wine list at 1313 Main.

Sommelier Bryan helped navigate the extensive wine list at 1313 Main.

Next up was a green garlic risotto with green peas, escargot and topped with crunchy garlic breadcrumbs ($17). I rarely order risotto out since I prepare it at home often, but this was delicious.

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The risotto was a perfectly delicious.

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Bacon-wrapped rabbit loin on a bed of polenta and salsa verde was an excellent choice.

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The sturgeon was wrapped in “brick dough” and served with beautiful seasonal vegetables.

We chose a Knez Winery’s K—and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir to accompany our main courses, Sonoma Rabbit ($28) and Sturgeon in Brick Dough ($25). The Day Boat Scallops ($28) and Lamb Saddle ($29) we tempting, too, but will have to wait for the next time.

For once, we saved room for dessert—pound cake churros served with a Valrhona drinking chocolate ($8). A perfect finale to a terrific meal.

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Save room for dessert!

1313 Main also offers a seven course Chef’s tasting Menu from amuse bouche to mignardises for $70 per person with an additional $55 for wine pairings.

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Complimentary mignardise.

The wine list is very well thought out and will fit most tastes and budgets. Offerings are broad, global and interesting with bottles ranging from a 2010 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from Fiddlehead Cellars for $39 to a 2008 Opus One Red Blend from Napa Valley for $1020. Both small and large format bottles are offered including a number of wines available in Jerobaoms and Methuselahs. 1313 Main also has a wonderful champagne list which includes the well-known labels, or grandes marques,  as well as bubbles from grower producers and negociants. There are of course a full complement of  sweet and fortified wines to end the meal.  The people at two adjacent tables seemed to enjoy their dessert wine– two glasses of  1890 De Oliveiras Verdelho Reserva Madeira ($150 per glass) very much– a sweet end to a memorable meal.

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Oenotri has a busy, open kitchen and a bustling dining room.

Oenotri www.oenotri.com is a downtown Southern Italian restaurant that we return to again and again.  It’s a fun, casual restaurant with delicious, well-priced fare, a lively bar and great service.  Salads are inventive and large enough to share.  We had a stone fruit salad with pancetta and nuts that was a great beginning to our meal ($13).  Other antipasti on offer include pork belly, salmon crudo and seasonal vegetables.

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A stone fruit salad was a great choice on a warm night.

Pastas range from a standard like bucatini with Alfredo sauce to an unexpected canneloni stuffed with pigeon. The pasta dishes are also suitable for sharing and prices range from $17 to $18. We didn’t have pasta this time but have enjoyed them as part of past meals here.

The pizzas are thin crusted and tasty and range in price from $15.50 to $18.00.  If Oenotri’s seasonal toppings aren’t enough, diners can add traditional items like anchovy, Calabrian Chili or pancetta for a few additional dollars. We shared the nicely spicy “Diavola” pizza with gypsy peppers, lamb sausage and fior di latte with heirloom tomatoes.  We added arugula to ours– vegetables are so important!

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This was a terrific pie– crispy, thin crust and tasty toppings.

There is also a selection of “secondi”– main plates, usually including a fish, a meat and a poultry dish, that change frequently.  We chose the swordfish prepared in the typical Sicilian agrodolce style which was served with grilled squashes and fennel.  We had a crisp 2013 Tami Grillo from Sicily which was perfect with the meal. Main courses are in the $28 to $32 range.

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Sicilian-style swordfish took me back there, for a little while.

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A nice Sicilian wine was a great match for the food.

We were too full for dessert after another delightful dinner at Oenotri! Check their website for events and news www.oenotri.com.

A bonus to our meal was learning from our server about Cadet www.cadetbeerandwinebar.com, a fun little bar just around the alley.   Naturally, we had to pop by and check it out.  We were there on a surprisingly crowded Monday night. Turns out it is a popular spot among those who work in the hospitality business.  Plenty of restaurants are closed on Monday night and Cadet is where those folks go to take a break.

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Cadet has a lively bar scene with libations and a casual menu.

 

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Monday is “School Night” at Cadet.

Other restaurants in downtown Napa that we’ve enjoyed and recommend checking out include: Celedon www.celedonnapa.com, Zuzu www.zuzunapa.com, Angele Restaurant + Bar www.angelerestaurant.com, and Kitchen Door www. kitchendoornapa.com at Oxbow Market.  If you have any favorites we haven’t talked about, please let us know and we’ll be sure to add them to the list for our next visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beaches, Hotels, Italy, Restaurants, Sicily, Wineries

Menfi and Points West: Planeta Estate La Foresteria

June 2, 2015
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A giant golden sun welcomes visitors to Menfi, Sicily.

You won’t find much in the guidebooks about Menfi and there is a reason for this. It is a small, unremarkable and not especially attractive town in the Southwest of Sicily but there are several excellent reasons to put it on your itinerary. The first and foremost is that is the Planeta family, known for their highly regarded wines, has a very lovely, small hotel called La Foresteria www.planetaestate.it located just a few kilometers outside of town. This peaceful oasis is between Menfi and Porto Palo, a small seaside community with beautiful, pristine beaches–more on that later.

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Planeta’s La Foresteria is surrounded by beautiful countryside which leads to the sea.

La Foresteria has simple, well-appointed and comfortable rooms. Our’s, named Timo (thyme), had a large bed, small sitting area, ample closet space and a bathroom with a double shower and very nice toiletries. The room also had a mini fridge and a safe. Depending on location, each of the 14 rooms has either a patio or balcony with views out over the vineyards and fields to the sea—very tranquil.  Besides birdsong, the only other sounds you’re likely to hear are distant tractors working the land.  It is a very peaceful place.

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We had a typical room at La Foresteria– large, comfortable, simple but well appointed.

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Rooms have views from their terraces or patios across the fields and on to the sea.

There is a gorgeous infinity pool if you’re up for a swim or for just lounging around and enjoying a sunset cocktail. The hotel has plenty of comfortable public spaces to relax and read, chat or enjoy the peace and quiet. There is also a small gym on the property.

The inviting pool at La Planeta's La Foresteria, near Menfi, Sicily.

The inviting pool at La Planeta’s La Foresteria, near Menfi, Sicily.

 

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La Foresteria’s pool is the perfect place to enjoy the sunset and a cocktail.

During the summer season through September, La Foresteria has a private beach club for guests. Friends have given it good reviews and really enjoyed the onsite massage service and lunch. Both of our visits have been in October, after the beach club was closed. The weather was still perfect though, and the hotel provided us with beach chairs, towels and umbrellas to use at the nearby beaches. The beaches in Porto Palo are among the cleanest and most pristine in all of Europe and proudly sport the blue flags awarded by the Foundation for Environmental Education proclaiming this. We practically had the beach to ourselves and the water was crystal clear and gloriously warm. Take some time off from touring to relax by the sea.

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The area near Menfi is known for its beautiful and pristine beaches.

Another reason to stay at La Foresteria is the incredible cuisine prepared by Chef Angelo Pumilia. He takes full advantage of the fresh seafood and abundant vegetables from the area. The menu, which changes seasonally, features classic Sicilian dishes and while we were there, a number of crudos—raw fish dishes that were all excellent, along with artfully prepared pasta and meat courses.

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Dinner is served on the terrace during warmer months. Here Chef Angelo welcomes us back to La Foresteria.

Everything we ate, and we each had three courses most nights, was superb. During our two stays (12 nights) we sampled most items on the menu– swordfish, prawns, mullet, chick pea soup, linguine with sardines, ricotta and mint ravioli, different lamb, beef and pork preparations– all were delicious– but Chef Angelo’s couscous was especially outstanding.

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Chef Angelo’s spectacular couscous includes both raw and cooked fish.

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The local seafood is prominently featured on the menu…

 

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…and artfully prepared and presented.

Guests may choose from several prix fix options or order a la carte. Whichever choice you make, save room for his sublime desserts. The olive oil ice cream and the Cerasuolo di Vittoria (wine) ice cream were my favorites.

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Cerasuolo ice cream makes a perfect dessert.

As expected, the reasonably priced wine list is heavily populated with Planeta labels and vintages but other producers’ wines are available as well. La Foresteria’s knowledgeable staff will gladly guide you.

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Planeta wines dominate the wine list, naturally, but other producers are represented as well.

Breakfast is a lovely affair with a bountiful buffet featuring fresh fruits, cheeses, hams, hard cooked eggs, pastries, cakes, juices, coffee drinks, and tea– all enjoyed on the expansive terrace.

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Guests choose their breakfast favorites. Coffee drinks are made to order and served at the table.

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This table doubles as the communal dining table for dinner during cooler weather.

Both breakfast and dinner were served outside on the patio on our last visit—a fine way to enjoy the great views and warm weather. On our first stay, only breakfast was available on the patio. Dinner was served inside at a large communal table, which was very convivial, and a great way to meet other guests—from Italy, France, Belgium, England, Japan and New Zealand.

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Guests enjoy breakfast and beautiful views on La Foresteria’s terrace.

While guests have priority for dining room seating, in the morning you should let the front desk staff know if you plan to dine at La Foresteria. I would also recommend booking if you plan to enjoy dinner the evening you arrive. You wouldn’t want to miss out on Chef Angelo’s outstanding cuisine!

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The talented and personable Chef Angelo Pumilia presides over La Foresteria’s kitchen.

If you’d like to learn more about Sicilian cuisine, the hotel offers cooking classes with Chef Angelo. Our schedule couldn’t accommodate a full class so we opted for a “Chat with the Chef” one evening for an hour before dinner. We enjoyed a wonderful conversation in the kitchen with Chef amid the hustle and bustle of the evening’s dinner preparation. The front desk will arrange either of these options for you as well as a visit to Planteta’s nearby wine estate. We had an informative tour, terrific wine tasting and a delicious lunch with Chiara Planeta.   It was a memorable afternoon, which ended with a relaxing dip in the pool and a well-deserved nap.

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A quiet moment at Da Vittoria, before the lunch crowd.

If you choose to dine off property, try Da Vittoria www.ristorantevittorio.it. This local favorite is less than a 10- minute drive from La Foresteria and is right on the beach. The restaurant specializes in seafood and whole fish dishes in particular. We enjoyed some wonderful pasta dishes including shrimp and pistachios, a red mullet pasta and other equally good seafood pasta combos. Our least favorite was the house pasta combination. The grilled fish was simply prepared but so fresh and delicious —the swordfish in particular.

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The excellent shrimp and pistachio pasta at Da Vittoria.

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Simple but delicious fishcakes made from local catch.

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Mandrossa’s Fiano was a perfect accompaniment to our lunch.

The portions are huge at Da Vittoria. Do not be shy about sharing—just say, “Uno per duo, per favore!” We had several lunches and dinners here and enjoyed the food, the view and the people watching each time. Even though the restaurant is quite large it fills up, so do book in for lunch or dinner.

Next up, day trips to consider.