Here at Hg2, we are all about fine things: sumptuous meals, rich culture, hot fashion and heated nightlife. And, of course, stunning photography. We recently got to know travel photographer Nick Ulivieri from Chicago and, given we’re about to launch a fantastic new Hg2 Chicago city guide, it was a match made in heaven. Nick sat down with us to answer a 15 questions about his favourite places in the world and graciously shared some of his beautiful pictures from around the world.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you got started with travel photography.
I’ve been a creative-type my whole life – drawing, coloring, tinkering, etc. But in 2009 at the age of 25, I finally found a medium for my creativity that I truly loved, and excelled at – photography. It all happened by chance. In 2009 I played family photographer on a trip to Italy. At the time, I had no real understanding of what I was doing but something clicked (literally and figuratively). Though I didn’t know exactly what aperture, ISO, and shutter speed meant, I understood the effects I could get by manipulating them in different ways. By the time the trip was over, I had mastered the application of the paltry manual controls of my point & shoot and had fallen in love with photography. It wasn’t long after that that I upgraded to a more robust DSLR system to really push the limits of the basic photography principles I had begun teaching myself.
I originally studied marketing at Bradley University and worked in the advertising industry for a handful of years where I developed a deep interest for the impact branding and design could have on a business. But after a few years in the corporate world, I realised I wanted to have a greater, more direct, impact on my clients’ visual appearance. Once that conclusion hit me, photography would no longer be just a hobby, but a lifestyle and career choice.
Since I left the advertising world behind, photography is just about all I do. I’ve studied, researched, practiced, and turned what was a budding interest into a successful commercial photography business based in Chicago – in 3 short years.
1. Favourite restaurant in Chicago
Chicago is known for its cuisine, especially steakhouses, but Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush one takes the “steak” with a decidedly Italian note. Their executive chef, Federico Commachio, hails from Milan and has an unending passion for high-quality fresh ingredients. While the steaks are some of the best in the city, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t try one of his risottos. If you happen to stop by and see Carnaroli rice parmigiana style served with a roasted quail on the special the menu, definitely try it – you can thank me later.
Here’s the second best part: it’s in the heart of the city, just steps off of Michigan Avenue near the Wrigley Buildings
2. Favourite bar in Chicago
Tucked in Chicago’s West Loop, The Beer Bistro is my go to bar, especially before a Bulls or Blackhawk’s game at the United Center. I go for the beer and stay for the food. The Beer Bistro’s selection is fantastic and features most of my favorite off-the-beaten-path beers – on tap! My favorite touch is that almost every beer they pour is served in branded glassware designed specifically for enjoying that style of beer.
Of course, good beer needs to be paired with good food – drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea. Luckily, the Beer Bistro’s selection of food is just as varied and delicious as their beer selection. Buffalo fried calamari anyone?
3. Best time of year to visit Chicago
While it’s true Chicago can have wild weather swings (sometimes we joke that you can experience all four seasons in one day), I really enjoy late August and early September. The crowds of peak summer season begin to die down and the weather is perfect. The last three or four Septembers have seen exceptionally spectacular weather.
4. Favourite world bar
The Funi Bar in Montecatini Terme is one I’m quite familiar with. My aunt’s family owns it, so it was a part of my life since I was way too young to drink. On a family trip we took when I was about 9 or 10 we stopped there a few times enjoy the homemade bar food. If you’re ever in Montecatini, this is the place to be if you’re looking to have a great night. It’s small, but intimate, and the food and drinks are made with pride.
Aside from the bar scene, there is a special feature not found at any other bar I know of. Directly next door there is a funicular (hence the name Funi Bar). The funicular is a cable-powered railway built into the cliff directly behind the bar that takes riders up and down the mountain in a railcar, not unlike the ones found in San Francisco, to visit Montecatini Alto – the older more historic part of town. At night you can look down on the twinkling lights of Montecatini Terme and other areas of the Tuscan landscape for miles while walking around the medieval part of town.
5. Favourite world restaurant
There’s this little place in the Italian town of Altopascio called Ristorante Del Porto. From the outside it’s a relatively unassuming restaurant and the interior has a comfortably “foreign” feel to it. While it doesn’t push the boundaries of trendy design, Ristorante Del Porto is all about the food and company you enjoy it with, while the personal connection I have to it makes the food even better. My father grew up in this town and his first job in the restaurant industry was at this little restaurant. Whenever we go back to visit his family, we stop in for dinner once or twice. The same people who employed my dad still operate the place to this day so going back is like visiting extended family. The portions are plentiful and varied, but saying their food is delicious is an understatement.
6. Best cocktail you’ve ever had
It’s hard for me to pick out one instance where I had my best cocktail, but I can tell you what my favourite drink is. A good gin and tonic is all I need. Hendrick’s Gin with a cucumber, instead of lime, can’t be beat. The flavors of this particular spirit marry so well with the cucumber essence that it can be easy to knock a few too many back.
7. Favourite places to photograph in Rome
The Roman Forum. I’ve always been fascinated with ancient Rome. The culture, the architecture, the engineering, everything! I can’t quite explain it, but there is something enthralling about trying to envision daily life back than, and how “normal” everything must have felt for its urban residents.
Aside from the endless playground of interesting items and structures to photograph, the ruins also send powerful messages. Though we marvel at their existence today, one can’t forget that these crumbling structures are rather literal metaphors of an Empire that itself crumbled under its own weight. What was once the powerhouse of the ancient Western world, was wiped off the map in a relative blink of an eye. Though I can’t imagine what it was like back then, it’s just as hard for me to imagine what life will be like 2000 years from now. It kind of makes me wonder, if ancient Rome is where we’ve been, does that also mean it’s where we’re going?
8. Best beer you’ve ever had
We were sightseeing in Florence, on what seemed like a 40-degree day (Italy was experiencing a heat wave at this time in 2009). We had just finished walking across the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and were in dire need of some “refreshments”. Our heat-induced zombie-ism was complicated by the fact that we had made the hike up to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome about an hour earlier. If you’re counting, it’s a 926-step round-trip.
So after leaving the Ponte Vecchio Bridge we stumbled upon The Friends Pub and walked in. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have assumed I was in Ireland. This out-of-place Irish pub had the air conditioning cranking (a rarity in Italy) and the beers were flowing. If memory serves correctly, I think I had a Kapuziner Weissbier. Once that ice-cold beer hit my lips, the agitation brought on by endless sightseeing in the stifling heat melted away and all was right with the world.
9. Favourite place on your travels so far
I’m a huge fan of Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera. The town of Vernazza is particularly charming. Narrow cobblestone streets, colourful buildings, steep seaside cliffs and a fairytale like harbour made this one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. There is a problem though. In 2011, torrential rains gave way to mudslides that nearly wiped out the town. Now this UNESCO World Heritage site is struggling to get back on its feet – but they are making progress. Hopefully it returns to its past glory so that others can experience all this small town has to give.
10. Favourite city to photograph
I’m probably biased, but Chicago is my muse. I’ve always been of the mind that the more you know your subject, the better you can photograph it, and I know this city. Secluded spots, the best time of day subjects look their best, and capturing the essence of a city is best done with knowledge and experience.
11. Type of camera gear you use
Nikon – all the way. Though I will add this. If you’re serious about photography, invest in a good tripod. A weak and/or cheap tripod can give you less than impressive results in a slight breeze, or unsteady surface.
12. Best meal you’ve ever had
Back to Ristorante Del Porto…On our most recent trip to Italy we stopped here for dinner, and had one of the best meals of my life. The whole family was there; my grandparents, my aunt, my cousins, etc.We sat down and were immediately presented with bread salad. After carb-loading on bread salad, the pasta dish came out – Linguini e Vongole (clams) in a simple white wine sauce. For the main course, we were presented with a slew of whole branzini that were cooked in parchment paper. The herbs and citrus now infused into the fish made quite an impression when the parchment was ripped open. After that we were all quite full. To finish the meal we had a selection of gelato from local producers, sipped on some espresso and had a limoncello or two. I can’t think of a better way to finish of the best mead I’ve ever had.
13. Chicago must-taste
This is a tough question to answer. Chicago’s food scene is known for a lot of things, and I’d guess stuffed pizza tops that list. While there are a handful of restaurants that claim their stuffed pizza is the best, I always find myself opting for Giordano’s when I want a thick slice of pizza pie. If you’re a carnivore like me, you have to get it stuffed with pepperoni and sausage – topped with hot giardiniera. That, my friends, is sure to make an impact on your palate. If you want something a little less bold, try the stuffed pizza with cheese and spinach – either way, you won’t leave hungry!
14. Favourite Museum in Chicago
One of the great things about Chicago is the wealth of museums situated within walking distance near and along the lakefront. The Art Institute of Chicago is my favourite. It’s the second largest art museum in the country, so there is plenty of art to see. It’s known mostly for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces. My favorite aspect is the new Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. The new building is a piece of art in itself. Built of steel and glass, this lightweight structure stands in stark contrast to the classical architecture of the main building. Either way, you’re in for an array of art and architecture if you make it to the Art Institute of Chicago.
15. Secret Chicago tip
If you’re in town and want to visit all of the typical sites (Millennium Park, The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, etc) go out early and on weekdays if possible. The lines for the museums can get long, and the crowds around Millennium Park’s “Cloud Gate” (aka “The Bean”) can be large. Additionally, if you’re looking to get great photos, the morning light along the skyline (especially if you’re along the lakefront) is beautiful. Also, if you’re taking a cab in and around The Loop, ask the driver to use Lower Wacker Drive. Not only will you arrive at your destination faster, but you’ll also be driving in the Batcave as seen in The Dark Knight.