Quick! When you think of traveling to Italy, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Florence, Venice, and Rome? Pizza and pasta? Leaning Tower of Pisa?
If you watched the recent CNN series on Italy hosted by actor and first-generation American Stanley Tucci, then you know Italy is far more diverse. Yes, there are wonders to be found in the most traveled places, but there are also special treasures to be uncovered in other regions as well, probably some that are new to you. When it comes to wine and food, it is hard to top the riches of Italy.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting native travel experts who live throughout Italy, and between my own multiple trips there and my conversations with them, I want to share why a trip to lesser-known Italy should be high on your list of where you’ll travel next.
Here is some food for thought, and in coming issues, I will share more to further whet your thirst and inspire you. There are 20 regions to be explored, to taste their wine and food, so let’s get going!
Emilia-Romagna—Food! Fast Cars! Film!
If you know this region at all, it’s probably because you know about famous culinary delights like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma, meat-rich Pasta Bolognese from Bologna, and Balsamic vinegar from Modena. These delicious foods are just the start.
Emilia-Romagna is called the Food Valley of Italy because it is home to so many gastronomic treats, and wine as well. Have you tasted hand-rolled pastas like tortellini, strozzapreti and garganelli? Hungry for a snack? Piadina, small flatbreads filled with local meats and cheeses and sold as street food, can satisfy that hungry tummy. If you love cold cuts, you will have to make hard choices from the many kinds of pork-based meats, from salami to prosciutto to pancetta.
All of this amazing food is best enjoyed with wine and Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s largest producer, only second to Veneto. Ironically, the most famous is the one that causes most Americans to groan. But sparkling red Lambrusco is not the same bubbly that reigned supreme in the US in the ’70s and ’80s. It is semi-frizzante, with a refreshing lightness not at all sweet. Earthy Sangiovese is produced widely in the region as is Malvasia, a dry white which goes perfectly with the seafood caught on the region’s Adriatic coast.
There’s more than eating and drinking in Emilia Romagna. No visit would be complete without going to the world’s most exotic car factories and fantasizing about a test drive. We’re talking Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, and Ducati motorcycles too. We can make your driving fantasies come true by arranging private visits and even a test drive of that dream car.
Though you won’t get to drive around the region in your hot red Ferrari, when you do travel around, the towns and scenery may look familiar. That’s because many of Italy’s most famous filmmakers were born here and used their local venues as backdrops for what are now classic films. Before you visit, watch a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, Federico Fellini, or Michelangelo Antonioni, all native sons of Emilia Romagna, to get into the mood.
Sicily—a taste of Europe all on one island
If you don’t have time to visit lots of countries in Europe, try Sicily. Seems like every country wanted to rule Sicily, and at various times, they all did. The Romans, the Greeks, the Normans, the French, the Arabs (which is how Sicilians refer to North Africans from countries like Morocco and Algeria), not to mention the French and the Germans, all conquered this strategically located island between Italy and North Africa, starting over 8,000 years ago!
Today’s Sicily, which is one of Italy’s 20 regions, reflects this diverse history, and you can find remnants of all of these cultures, in their architecture, in the multi-cultural population, and mostly in their food and wine.
Like couscous? A typically Moroccan dish of tiny pastas smothered with lamb or chicken tagine, but in western Sicily, it is a bouillabaisse-like seafood stew containing fresh fish caught locally, a result of the Arab influence. Other famous foods of Sicily include spaghetti with sardines, sweets made with pistachios, arancino rice balls, and lots of tomatoes and eggplant-based dishes (think eggplant Parmesan and caponata, the cold marinated salad with eggplant, olives, and celery). All of these have roots in Sicily’s diverse history.
While Sicily is most famous for its fortified Marsala wine, that may be a tad sweet to enjoy with briny fish. Instead, enjoy a mineral-rich white, grown from the volcanic soil on Mount Etna, a major wine region. Arguably Sicily’s most famous wine is Nero d'Avola, which is indigenous to the island. Often blended with Frappato, an aromatic, low-tannin grape, producing a very smooth and drinkable wine.
Basilicata—the secret of Italy, but not for long
Probably Italy’s least known region, this southeast portion of the country delivers on unique experiences and exquisite scenery. Must see is the town of Matera, perched in Sassi, or rock caves, high above the Adriatic. Here you can actually stay in a hotel built into the caves, or at the very least, go to a spa inside the rocks. Truly breathtaking and definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. If you want to combine caves with the ocean, the Ionian Islands are s short drive and just off the coast, offering deserted beaches to enjoy the Ionian Sea during the frequently sunny days.
While not as well known for native food and wine, Basilicata has its own food specialties and world-famous wine. Pane di Matera, or Matera bread, is known for its conical shape and fragrant taste. What is really fun is to take a bread-making class and make your own. A common way to describe native dishes is “peasant food” made from locally produced ingredients. Peppers are huge, such as peperone crusco. They dry and crush them, using them as an ingredient in tomato-based pasta sauces. A perfect example is tumacë me tulë. This pasta dish contains tomato sauce and anchovies, topped with fried bread crumbs (which are sometimes called “poor man’s truffles”), chopped walnuts, garlic, parsley, and the dried peperone crusco .
Basilicata’s famous wine is Aglianico, known as the “king of red wine.” Grown on the slopes of the extinct volcano at Mount Vulture, this bold wine tastes of the minerality, which comes from the volcanic soil where it thrives.
Piemonte—Barolo, Barbaresco and Bubbles
To even a semi-serious wine lover, when they hear Piemonte—or Piedmontthey drool over big, bold, red Barolo and Barbaresco. Yes, this is THAT region, and it offers a lot more.
Image credit: Giorgio Perottino – Getty Images for Ente Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba
Bordered on three sides by the Alps, Turin is the regional capital and home to the largest open-air market, which is a definite must-do. Here you can find almost any delicacy you can imagine. So many foods (and beverages in addition to wine) are produced in Piemonte, including Lavazza coffee, Nutella, the beloved chocolate hazelnut spread, white truffles from Alba, Bresaola, the popular air-dried beef and dried risotto, that other carb when you’ve had your fill of pasta. Opportunities abound for cooking classes, truffle hunting and chocolate-making classes to learn how to craft gianduiotto chocolate, gold foil-wrapped candies native to Turin.
Speaking of gold, Piemonte is also one of four jewelry-making centers of Italy, and you’ll find many artisans designing in their studios as well as major producers like Damiani, Bulgari, and Cartier. We may be able to find you a jewelry-making class…or at least a place to shop for locally produced treasures.
Wine is obviously the big draw in Piemonte, and there are numerous opportunities to visit wineries, with our specialty being getting you into the premium boutique producers who are not open to the public. What makes the Barolo and Barbaresco so interesting is that they are both derived from the Nebbiolo grape, yet they are very different wines. Barolo is intense and velvety, generally very tannic (which means it ages well), and high in alcohol, unusual for European wines. Barbaresco is lighter and considered more “elegant,” with less tannins so it doesn’t need to age as long.
There are a wealth of other wines, but we have to talk about the bubbles. Probably most well-known is Asti Spumante, which, like Emilia Romagna’s Lambrusco, was quite popular in the US back in the ’70s. Today, you’ll find it light and tasting of stone fruits, and if you want less sparkle, you’ll probably like Moscato d’Asti, made from the same Moscato Bianco grapes, but not as bubbly.
Due to the cooler climate, Piemonte is also home to lovely whites. Favorites are Arneis and Gavi, which are made from the region’s Cortese grapes. Post perfect when served chilled on a warm day.
Although a little touristy (sometimes you just have to do these things), you’d be remiss not visiting the historical wine cellars of Coppo, which extend under the hill of Canelli for a total of 5,000 square meters. These are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are best described as an underground cathedral to wine. Originally built in the late 18th century, they were continually expanded until 1900. Today there are many levels to explore, and this is truly a magnificent homage to wine, not to mention a great way to store.
Umbria—the other Tuscany
Umbria, the region just south and east of Tuscany, is Italy’s only landlocked region. And while it is often overlooked by its famous cousin, it shouldn’t be because Umbria is a gorgeous, largely unspoiled region with lots of great wine and food, and other riches as well.
Like Tuscany, Umbria is dotted with historic hill towns, each one rising from the plains with a majestic cathedral surrounded by city walls. One of the most famous is Perugia, where the famed chocolate is made (and actually has a hotel called the Chocolate Hotel, where every room is named for a different type of chocolate and dishes prepared by the hotel restaurant often contain chocolate!). Another is Assisi, known primarily for St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology.
In addition to food and wine, Umbria is the pottery-making center of Italy, and the region is filled with producers. Deruta is the center of regional pottery, and arguably the most famous producer is Grazia. Dating back for hundreds of years, Grazia is still thriving today and a visit to their factory in the center of town is worthwhile to watch the artists paint their beautiful traditional and contemporary designs. Plus, you never know if you’ll run into one of their famous customers like George Clooney.
Other hill towns include Gubbio, famous for its Ceri Festival each May 15, where runners dressed as candles representing their favorite saints, race from the town center up the mountain to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, where his sarcophagus lies in state.
The hill town best known for wine is Orvieto, which produces a light and crisp white made from Grechetto and Trebbiano Toscana grapes. The most prestigious reds from Umbria are Montefalco made from 100% Sagrantino grapes and Torgiano Rosso Riserva, which is primarily a Sangiovese.
Food-wise, Umbria’s regional fare tends towards meat, with beef, pork, and wild boar popular, especially grilled. Truffles are huge, so they grace many dishes and for pasta, Umbria makes a dense and chewy strangozzi, a long thick noodle perfect with sauces made from meat—especially that wild boar.
These are just 5 of the 20 regions of Italy, and we’ve barely touched the surface. For 2022, we will be putting together several small group custom trips to let you experience for yourself the pleasures of Italy. As a friend recently said to me, “experiences are the new luxury travel.”
Couldn’t have said it better. What experience have I added to your list?