There are few places in the word as famous for its food than Italy. There’s just something special about traditional Italian cuisine that sets it apart from most of its neighbors. I’ve never seen a Swiss restaurant near where I live, but there are plenty of Italian bistros and there’s a reason for that. Italian food speaks to our souls in a way few other cuisines manage, so whenever I visit Italy food is of course an important part of the experience. I’ve enjoyed many great meals and food experiences in Italy, but here are some of my favorites, many of which go beyond simple pleasure and helped me better understand the regions and different cultures of this always fun to visit country.
Cooking like the Milanese
Food tours are great, but so are cooking classes that go into more depth than any tour could hope to. I look for these when I have enough time in any given place, especially since they usually last for several hours. I also try to do them in iconic foodie destinations, and Milan certainly qualifies as that. Northern Italy in general, but Milan and Lombardy in particular is home to some of the most famous Italian dishes, as well as the tastiest. Walking into the modest home of Chef Aurora, owner of Cook and Dine, I could already smell the aromas of cooking prep well underway. There’s something inherently calming about being in someone’s house, in their kitchen when learning how to cook. Had we been in a large industrial space I know I would’ve been a little nervous, but cooking alongside Aurora in her personal kitchen made it seem like I was hanging out with a friend instead of a teacher. Through her patient tutorial, that evening we learned how to prepare several iconic Milanesi dishes including: Osso bucco, pumpkin ravioli, cotoletta and tiramisu. It was a delicious way not just to learn about the food, but to really feel connected to the people who call both Milan and Lombardy home.
What is perhaps most interesting to me as an American is that while we may think we know and understand Italian food, we really don’t. No, we’re familiar with the Americanized version and while there are some similarities, there are many more differences. What we miss about Italian food is the regional nuance, how much the cuisine changes from one region to the next and, ultimately, fully understanding that there really is no such thing as Italian cuisine per se. No, instead there’s Venetian, Bolognese, Pugliesi and so on. Part of the fun of visiting Italy is getting to know and understand these differences; seeking them out wherever you go. In Mantua I enjoyed a pumpkin ravioli that was the best I’d ever had, in Lucca their strangely glazed breads piqued my interest and further south in the Amalfi Coast still more surprises awaited my attention. There are thousands of little foodie discoveries to be made in Italy and, I think, it’s an important aspect of any trip to the country.
Over the last few trips to Rome I’ve joined a couple of food tours, each fun and delicious but also very different from one another. Eating Europe is a food-focused food tour company that I have come to depend on whenever I’m in Europe and in Rome that meant spending a morning exploring the Trastevere neighborhood with a local resident. For hours we meandered around this hip neighborhood, one I had never before visited, learning about its history and enjoying those snacks and meals important to the people who live there. From gelato and pasta to more local favorites, the morning spent with them was full of laughter and fun moments, including my first bite of porchetta. So much more than just expertly cooked pork, this homey dish is a pork roast that is stuffed with any number of ingredients and slowly cooked over wood for hours. It’s also a dish that folks very seriously, each provider certain that their version is the best in the city. That’s the real value in any great food tour, getting closer to local communities and learning all about them through what they love to eat.
Sorrento Pizza Making
Perched high on a hill overlooking the city of Sorrento and the bay on which it sits, I couldn’t help but fall in love. This is the promise, this is what the coastline of Italy should be and living there, even if only for a few days, was a travel experience I won’t soon forget. A slower pace of life, kind people and delicious food; add in amazing scenery and you have a recipe for success. While I loved learning more about the city, one of my favorite experiences there had nothing to do with the views or long history, it was instead an experience I booked to learn more about the culture through food. Chef Carmen has long been a fixture in Sorrento and has led cooking classes for years. She’s famous not only for her stellar cooking skills, but for a personality that lights up a room. Spending several hours with her, along with a small group of other students, I laughed more than I have in a long time as I learned the intricacies of making such classics as pizza, gnocchi and eggplant parmesan. While I’m not sure I can replicate the recipes at home exactly, there’s no doubt I had a fun afternoon and a delicious meal as a result of my time with Carmen.
All of Bologna
In Italy there is a saying about Bologna, it is often labeled as ‘The Fat, the Red, the Learned.’ The red actually refers to the generous use of brick in their architecture and the learned refers to the ancient and well-known university. The ‘fat’ though, that’s the interesting attribution and as I learned it is all too accurate. Bologna, and indeed the entire Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, is blessed with a clear overabundance of great foods, both in their natural form and man made. So many of what we consider to be Italian classics all come from Bologna: Mortadella, lasagna, ragu sauce, tortellini, Balsamic vinegar and so on. A brief walk through the city center, along with several great meals, proved not only how much the Bolognese love their food, but just how very good it is. It’s hard to find a bad meal in Italy, but in Bologna it is an impossibility.
Rome is truly one of the great food capitals of the world and it’s hard to go wrong no matter what your culinary interests may be. That being said, there are some easy ways to discover new foods and neighborhoods by taking an engaging food tour. Following my Mediterranean cruise I was in Rome just a few days before Christmas and so decided to join a tour with another company I love to work with, Context Trip. Famous for offering thoughtful and offbeat walking tours around the world, in Rome I decided to hop on their seasonal holiday food tour. Led by a local chef and food writer, she spent the morning taking us to some of Rome’s best kept foodie secrets to sample those delicacies most important around the holidays. Cakes and chocolates, sandwiches and pizza and of course gelato all played a role but, more importantly, I learned a lot about the holiday traditions of the city and how local Romans celebrate the season. No matter what you decide to eat in Rome, be sure to get out there and be adventurous, exploring new neighborhoods and finding your own perfect bites.