Five Not-to-be-Missed Foods in Italy

One of the most important elements of any Italy trip is not what you'll see in the piazzas and museums, but what you'll sample from your plate and glass. Italy is about art and culture, of course, but it is also about food and wine, and the traditional cuisine is such an integral part of this country's history and culture that it is often hard to separate the two. Everything from the landscape to the opening hours of businesses has been shaped by Italian's eating habits over the centuries, so it's only fitting that an authentic experience in Italy includes tasting its most authentic dishes.

cannolo-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Here are five of our favorites - chosen from a thousand contenders - that are a must for any Italy trip. Be sure you try each in its home region, as Italy is a patchwork of micro-cuisines and eating a northern dish in the south or vice versa simply doesn't pack the same flavor punch.

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Row Like a Venetian

Voga, voga, il vento tace,
pura è l'onda, il ciel sereno,
solo un alito di pace
par che allegri e cielo e mar:
voga, voga, o marinar.

Row, row, the wind has died,
the water is pure, the sky bright,
only a breath of peace
seems to cheer both sky and sea.
Row, row, sailor.

- Leopoldo Tarantini

voga-voga-row-venice-cr-ciutravel(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though its reputation has been somewhat sullied by its popularity with tourists, there is nothing more authentic and historic - not to mention picturesque - in Venice than voga rowing. This traditional style of sculling with a single, long oar to both propel and steer has been used by *gondolieri *for centuries and is uniquely suited to guide gondolas through the narrow, twisting canals of La Serenissima. Though we always urge travelers to Venice to support this local tradition by taking a gondola ride during their stay, on our most recent visit we went a step further and took a private lesson to try our hand at voga ourselves!

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Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Collection

One of the most important and prestigious art collections in Venice has surprisingly little to do with La Serenissima's illustrious history and artistic heritage.

guggenheim-venice-entrance(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Instead, it was bold American heiress and patron of the arts Peggy Guggenheim who amassed a stunning collection of 20th century art and found a home for it in her adopted city of Venice, where it remains among the city's most popular museums today.
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You Say Chickpeas, I Say Garbanzos...It's All Ceci to the Italians

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, have been one of the Mediterranean's staple legumes for over 7,000 years and are believed to have been the first legume cultivated by man in the Neolithic period. Popular in Roman times, their modern Italian name ceci derives directly from the Latin cicer, and Italy's enduring love for chickpeas is reflected in the many traditional regional recipes based on whole, ground, or pureed beans.

Zuppa di Ceci
(Photo by paPisc via Flickr)

First-time visitors to Italy are often surprised at the diversity found in authentic Italian cuisine, as many think exclusively of pasta and pizza when they think of Italian food. Historically, however, much of Italy was relatively poor and rural until the mid-20th century, and families in the countryside survived on protein-rich legumes throughout the winter months. Stewed chickpeas flavored with a bit of pork fat and mixed with winter greens, dried chickpeas ground into flour to make both sweet and savory dishes, pureed chickpeas mixed with cocoa or honey to form a rich, smooth filling for sweets...you can find chickpeas featured in a wide variety of dishes in almost every region of Italy.

Though they are primarily grown in the central and southern regions where the summer temperatures are high enough to ripen the pods, which are then harvested and hung up to dry before the beans can be shelled, chickpeas continue to be a beloved staple from north to south. Most traditional chickpea recipes are winter dishes, as farmwives would once set a pan of beans to simmer for hours on the hearth while going about their day. Here are some of the most unique chickpea dishes in Italy to seek out on your next trip:

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Pistoia: Italy's 2017 Culture Capital

It's a new year, and Italy would like to bring your attention to a new unsung “Cultural Capital” over the next 12 months. Cultural Capitals are small, jewel-like cities that have less star power than Venice or Florence, but offer their own understated beauty and artistic and architectural treasures to discover. Last year, the honor fell to the “Sleeping Beauty” of Mantua, a beautiful Renaissance center and UNESCO World Heritage Site between Milan and Venice, and this year the fêted city is the Tuscan town of Pistoia, just half an hour outside Florence at the foot of the Apennine mountains.

B02 Pistoia panorama(Photo by mksfca on Flickr)

Christened “La Città dei Crucci”, or “City of Sorrow”, by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pistoia has long had a reputation for being particularly contentious, with its residents embroiled in protracted battles between warring factions and families for centuries. “I love you, city of sorrow, bitter Pistoia,” wrote D'Annuncio, “blood of the Whites and the Blacks, that turns red before your proud people, men of ideology, with ancient joy.” Today, rather than bitterness and blood, you'll find Pistoians harbor a fierce civic pride and enduring affection for their home town.

Pistoia has grown in popularity over the past few years, as visitors to Florence look to escape the crowds in Tuscany's capital city by venturing out to the relative peace of the nearby provincial towns for day trips and overnights. If there was ever a time to visit Pistoia's pretty piazzas, elegant churches, and world-class museums, it is 2017...the calendar is full of special cultural events, exhibitions, and concerts and the center has been spruced up and is ready to receive travelers curious to explore one of the most charming small cities in Tuscany.
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