01/13/2014 08:16 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

New Florence Discoveries

I'm lucky to have friends in Florence, so I get to visit there pretty frequently. Every time I go I like to touch base with old favorites -- the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, the small boutiques along the Borgo San Jacopo, the stalls in the Sant' Ambrogio Market. But I also like to try something new. This latest trip, I discovered three new favorites:

1. Cooking class at the Torre di Bellosguardo

There are several cooking classes in Florence, but Anna Franchetti's newest entry is, in my experience, one of the best anywhere. One reason is that she carefully explains why things are done the way they are, the sort of explanations that stick in my mind way after the lesson is over. For instance, she told me why she prefers to use Carnaroli rice in her risotto, instead of the more familiar Arborio: "it's more forgiving, if you cook Arborio too long it gets mushy." The young mother used to run a restaurant in her native Portugal, which explains her ease around the kitchen. The hands-on class covers classic Florentine recipes -- crostini with liver, risotto with porcini, tagliatelle with meat sauce, roast beef Florentine style (seasoned with garlic, rosemary and olive oil from the Torre's own garden) and finished with a fruit tart. After learning how and helping make the multicourse feast, you sit down with the Baroness (she's married to the Baron Amerigo Franchetti, who inherited the magnificent Torre and turned it into a small and exclusive hotel) at her big farmhouse table, and enjoy the fruits of your labor and the Torre's own wine. I received a folder with all the recipes and instructions, in English, to take with me so I can wow my friends back home with a Florentine feast. Minus the exquisite estate, chef's kitchen and home-grown ingredients.

2. Roberto Capucci Museum

I was familiar with the name Roberto Capucci, a fashion designer who started dazzling the world in the Dolce Vita days of the 1950s. I had heard that there was a museum devoted to him somewhere in Florence. But where? No one knew. A little research discovered that it is high in the hills behind the Pitti Palace, so one day I convinced my friend Akiko to explore it with me. There are two ways to get to the museum, one via a steep road, or another on a footpath that winds its way through the Bardini gardens to the Villa Bardini that houses the museum and Roberto Capucci Foundation. The exhibit of Capucci's designs is modest in size but striking in content -- about 20 of the more than 400 boldly colored and extravagantly pleated, ruffled, draped, swirled and sculpted gowns by the designer are displayed in all their glory. There's a café with a beautiful view of the city, which was unfortunately closed when we were there, but Akiko has since been back and tells me we must go next time I'm in Florence.

3. Mama's Bakery

On another outing, Akiko introduced me what's becoming known as "the American bakery": Mama's. I could have sworn I was back in Nolita, instead of a short walk from the Piazza Santo Spirito. Bagels! Bran muffins! Chocolate chip cookies! American coffee! All in a pleasant setting of mismatched flea market chairs and tables. The café is owned by Californian chef Matt Reinecke who married an Italian (Cristina, who runs the shop) and wanted to bring a much-needed bit of home with him to Florence. It's been a big hit with expats and locals alike.