La Bottega del Tortellino – artisan pasta shop in Orvieto

I’m a big fan of making my own bread and pasta and think it’s worthwhile for everyone to learn – it’s easy, cheap, and for most people, what you can make at home is much better than anything you can buy from a store.

However, it’s another story when you live a 2 minute walk from a fresh pasta shop like La Bottega del Tortellino.

For years we’ve dutifully bought their ricotta and spinach ravioli at least once a week.  In a pinch, we’ll get a few portions of tortellini to serve in broth, or the potato and taleggio cheese ravioli which we’ll toss with butter and sage.  Yes, this is what we get to eat when we’re too lazy to cook – fresh pasta, usually made no more than a day ago.

The owners have a 10 year old daughter and I often see them at the elementary school.  Having chatted with them a few times, I understood that they had an unlikely story – having decided to change careers and become professional pasta makers.

The following video is about competing with big business, a changing food culture in Italy, and of course, pasta!

La Bottega del Tortellino – artisan pasta shop in Orvieto from Cross-Pollinate Travel on Vimeo.

What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

Not All Vacation Rental Agencies Are Created Equal – an Interview with NY Habitat


I have a lot of respect for NY Habitat.  I’ve used them personally in New York, years ago, to book an amazing apartment that cost a fraction of a hotel and gave our family at least 3 times the space.  More than that, I respect them because in many ways they are on the same side of an imaginary line that separates Cross-Pollinate from other sites that, in my opinion, are following a dangerous trend in the vacation rental market.

I’ve lost count over the years of how many accommodation agencies have sprouted up like weeds online — many of them promoting the same properties (sometimes unbeknownst to the owners) in an identically impersonal way and with cookie-cutter designs (large slideshow image of a beautiful apartment and a big, fat text box that says something direct like “where do you want to go?”).  The business model may differ from site to site, but almost all of them that are getting serious press and financial backing, and thus are the ones competing for your eyeballs, have traded in any notion of quality control for scalability.  Having witnessed everything that can go wrong in international travel over the last 10 years, the thought of what happens to that 1 or 2% of tourists who fall through the cracks — ie. gets scammed, books a place that doesn’t exist, or has their accommodation canceled by the owner at the last minute — makes me cringe.   Large sites find this percentage acceptable, and perhaps when you do millions of revenue, it’s a small price to pay.  But when you’re the guy on vacation, with 1 week to spare a year, things look a helluva lot different.

It didn’t used to be like this though.  When we started Cross-Pollinate in 2000, it was all much simpler.  It was rare that people sought out apartments and spare rooms in the first place, so we had to go and inspect them and make sure they existed before we could promote them. Sites like ours, and NY Habitat, which was founded in 1998, were certainly pioneers in getting these alternative accommodations online so they could be reserved easily.  Unfortunately, this model of ours, which works quite well, albeit on a small, manageable scale, has grown into an industry of inexperienced players, flushed with cash and credibility issues.

Talking to Marie-Reine, the founder of NY Habitat, helped reinforce my conviction that the “mom-and-pop / Main Street” version of the travel world is worth preserving.



1.  What’s your personal background and how did New York Habitat get started?

Originally from a small town in Western France, I actually started my career working in an antique business company. For business purposes, I traveled to New York for a few months in 1981. That was the first time I discovered NYC, and I immediately fell in love with the city! I had to go back to France shortly after but returned to the city later on to settle eventually. Since I was living in the Big Apple, I started having a lot of people asking to stay at my apartment to visit the city: first family, then friends, then friends of friends… I had so many people asking me to host them I even told everyone to stop giving out my contacts! That’s when I realized how much of the big dream New York represented for so many people. Everyone wants to come here! So I decided to turn the loft I was working in into a vacation rental for anyone coming to New York City. It all went fast from then on: I obtained my license, expanded the team, Francois Roux joined up and implemented the website (, and we were on our way to becoming the successful company New York Habitat is today.

2.  What’s the New York Habitat model and what do you think distinguishes you from other websites?  In other words, why should someone book through you and not stay in a hotel?  Why should someone book through you and not another website?

The strength of New York Habitat lies in three factors: cosmopolitanism, expertise and protection. Indeed, you could picture NYH as a bridge between owner and tenant, between two people and between two cultures. We have agents fluent in many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian and German, and we have branches not only in New York but also in Paris, London and in the South of France. Also, we rely on our staff of most professional Real Estate Agents, who make a point of assisting and educating our clientele in their search for an accommodation or housing. Finally, we understand that in a world where it is becoming easier and easier to rent an apartment or a vacation rental, people need a safety net to protect themselves from many of the threats we have seen in the papers lately. This is why we provide guarantees before, during and after the stay of clients through state licenses worldwide and compliance to the latest current laws surrounding housing.  We want our clientele to feel safe and fully enjoy their stay in a New York Habitat accommodation.

3.  You’ve been in the business long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the online travel industry.  What changes do you predict in the next 2-5 years?

Well, first of all, I think that e-booking is definitely going to go mainstream and, with so many things to make it easy for us to rent an apartment, I am certain that within a few years we will be able to rent an apartment just like we book a hotel room. Also, we will attend the development of peer-to-peer in the market, with all of these new websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other. This will deeply reshape the housing market and the role of brokers in the future. In order to follow these changes smoothly, we need to think about new concepts and grow towards a more complete expertise and better communication. We need to create tomorrow’s broker.

4.  New York Habitat has a stunning amount of fans/followers – you’re like a rock star!  What do you think the key to your success is?  What is it that you think people identify with about your company?

99% perspiration, 1% inspiration! It’s been a lot of work accumulated throughout the years to become what New York Habitat is today. Our work is very tiring because what we create is something sustainable and strongly built, and I think people can see that: through a constant level of excellence in our service. Our internationality combined with a personalized expertise helped us build our reputation over the years. And all the work behind the scene, like a case-by-case approach and a thorough inspection of each one of our apartments, gives a unique sense of safety to our clientele.

Over the last 2 years, we have started to engage in the social media community and it has been very exciting. Our Facebook fans (30,000 as of today) show us what they are interested via their Likes and comments, and our Twitter followers (12,000 so far) encourage us to find new ideas, new deals. All of them share their experiences with us, which allows us to improve our service and strive for excellence. It is definitely a win-win situation when you take the time to listen!

Our goal is to share and expand our knowledge via articles, to-do lists and videos.

We recently started sharing content on Tumblr (very visual website with lots of pictures and tips), on Flickr, on Foursquare (if you are not sure what to do in New York, Paris, London or even the South of France, check us out!) and on Google+.

We enjoy sharing our knowledge and receiving feedback from our customers and Fans.

5.  Do you have a horror story that comes to mind either from the perspective of a guest or owner or agent, or all three?

We did have a few bad stories like you never expect them to happen, but there is one that struck me especially. We had found housing for this woman in a roommate share in a Paris apartment and about a year ago, a huge fire started for an unknown reason and burned down the whole place! There was absolutely nothing left but ashes! But luckily no one got hurt. Of course, since the rental was completely destroyed we relocated her, as well as the landlady that was also living there and had lost her apartment…. Insurance kicked in and helped them out but trust me we got really scared for the people living in the accommodation!

6.  Can you tell a story about how NYH has been able to come through for someone and really save the day?

It sounds incredible but we find emergency housing for people almost every week! You have no idea how many people get scammed by Craigslist all the time! We even wrote an article about them on our New York Habitat blog ( People think it is easy and simple to rent an apartment so they just go ahead and reply to an advertisement but they don’t realize how dangerous that can be until it is too late! Hopefully, most of the time we are able to find them another apartment to live in and people are always extremely grateful to us when that happens. It makes me personally proud because that is another proof of the level of service we fight to reach!

7.  What are your plans for the future – either for New York Habitat or otherwise?

Work smarter, more efficiently and keep raising our service to the next level. Now more than ever the housing market has grown increasingly competitive with the appearance of a whole series of unfair competitors. Peer-to-peer websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other represent a real threat to the traditional real estate model. If this peer-to-peer trend isn’t challenged legally, the whole market of real estate housing will be completely reshaped. A recent law issued by the State of New York and prohibiting rentals for less than 30-days in class-A buildings already modified our entire business structure. We adapted ourselves and do our best to stay afloat while respecting the law but this has to apply to every player in the real estate market. You will find more legal information on this blog dedicated to New York housing laws: We don’t know what tomorrow will be made of but yet here at New York Habitat, we’re hoping for the best… and long live vacation rentals!

To discover more about New York Habitat, visit our website and find the social media icons like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.

by Steven Brenner