This article was first published on BookCulinaryVacations.com.
We all know Italy as gastronomic heaven, but it can be equally as easy to fall into a tourist restaurant in places like Rome, Florence, or Venice and have a meal that might have been better at an American Italian restaurant.
If you’re looking to experience food and drink in Italy, there are some on- and off-the-beaten path destinations to put on your list. Here, we highlight a sample itinerary, starting in the less-traveled region of Piedmont and journeying through Emilia-Romagna to the food capitals of Parma and Bologna.
1. The Langhe Wine Region
Arriving in Torino, enjoy a day wandering among the historic shops or exploring the world famous Egyptian Museum, Automobile Museum, or Cinema Museum. Stop into a famous restaurant or cafe like Porto di Savona or Da Cianci Piola Caffé to enjoy regional dishes with ingredients sourced daily – like handmade tagliatelle with locally hunted truffles. Pick up a gelato at one of Torino’s great gelaterias, including the original Grom in Piazza Paleocapa (now a chain throughout Italy).
After a night in Torino, head south to the Langhe region to the area around Alba, staying in one of the charming towns perched on the rolling hills. Check out Monforte D’Alba, Barolo (for which the wine is named!) or La Morra, where it’ll be easy to find a family-run inn or agriturismo on a vineyard. Use your inn as a base for exploring numerous wineries around the area, like Paolo Mezone in Serralunga D’Alba, Cantina Mascarello Bartolo (+39 0173-56125) or Ca del Baio in Treiso. If you have the opportunity, dine on local specialties in the window at La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba for views of a lifetime over the vineyards and Alps.
Heading about two hours east of the Langhe wine region, you’ll find the Food Valley of Italy, a concentration of culinary destinations, starting with Parma. Staying around Parma, you can have food experiences of a lifetime. Organize a visit to a Parmigiano cheese producer via the Tourist Office or via the cheesemakers consortium in Parma. Forget about the Parmesan cheese in shakers that we find in U.S. supermarkets! There are very specific regulations, determining whether a cheese can be declared Parmigiano Reggiano DOP (Di Origine Protetta). Milk comes from regional farms and must arrive at the cheese producer within two hours in order to meet standards. Then it’s aged for 12 months until it comes out as a branded Parmigiano Reggiano wheel.
You can also arrange a visit to a Parma Ham (prosciutto) factory through the Parma Tourism Office. Or, about one hour from Parma, you can experience the making of an even more niche product:Culatello di Zibello. This type of ham comes from a specific region of twelve villages along the Po river, where production has often been handed down through generations. It is the best cut of the pork leg and is seasoned and cured before being left to age in caves or cellars for about a year. It is then inspected with a mallet before being approved as Culatello. Check out Fratelli Spigaroli for a visit.
While heading to Bologna from Parma, be sure to make a stop at an acetaia in Modena, where only the real balsamic vinegar is made. Did you know that the real balsamic vinegar can actually be sweet? Some put it on fruit and ice cream! It starts with regional grapes, which are cooked until reduced to one-third of their volume. They are then transferred to barrels and aged for 12-25 years. Balsamic vinegar aged under 25 years is referred to as “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”, whereas vinegar aged more than 25 years is called “Vintage Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”. You can sample all varieties on your visit. Prepare to be amazed!
Arrange a visit to an acetaia by contacting a producer listed on the Reggio Emilia Tourism website or Modena Tourism websites. After sampling from the aging barrels, head to the city of Modena where you can grab a bag of amaretti di Modena (chewy almond cookies) for an afternoon of strolling through the piazzas, including Piazza Grande, a UNESCO Heritage site. For dinner, try a regional plate of tortelli pasta at Osteria Stallo del Pomodoro, a restaurant housed in an old horse stable. Enjoy your meal with a glass of Lambrusco, the regional fizzy red wine that’s served chilled.
About an hour from Parma and Modena is Bologna, one of Italy’s food capitals. Home to the famous tagliatelle al ragù, you could spend a day just looking at the food displays in shop windows. Your eyes will feast on displays of pastries, handmade pastas, and more Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar, and Parma ham. As a testament to the importance of food, Bologna is the home to many food tours, which will bring you to producers like those just visited in prior days. Trattoria menus are stacked with tortelloni with a variety of sauces, like gorgonzola or traditional red sauce. When you feel like you can’t take any more ham and cheese, explore the Università di Bologna, the West’s oldest university, founded in 1088, or climb Bologna’s own leaning tower, the Asinelli Tower. At one time, there were 180 towers in Bologna, constructed by noble families as signs of prestige. Wrap up your trip with an authentic Italian experience, aperitivo. Around 6pm, Italian bars will lay out a buffet of food. When you buy a drink, you eat for free! Grab a plate and make a smorgasboard.
5. BONUS: Ferrara
This enchanting small city is overrun by bicycles – it is practically free of cars! It’s mesmerizing watching all the bicycles swirl around you. Spend an afternoon here, wandering its cobblestone streets, passing under historic archways, and walking on top of the medieval walls that still surround the city. The Estense Castle, complete with its moat and drawbridges, is a mystical reminder of the power of the Este family, who built the fortress to protect itself from the people after a popular revolt. After building up an appetite, stop into a local trattoria like Cusina e Botega or the traditional Osteria del Ghetto to try the famous cappellacci di zucca, squash ravioli eaten with ragu or with butter and sage. Finish up your visit with a glass of wine at Al Brindisi, the oldest enoteca in the world, which opened its doors in 1435!
Sound like paradise? Travel through the Langhe to Parma, Modena, and Bologna without the stress of planning!Join Olde Ipswich Tours on the Piedmont & Bologna Tour from September 17-28, 2017.