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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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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Italy: The Perfect Romantic Gift

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and everyone over the age of 8 who is in a relationship is feeling the pressure of choosing the perfect gift to celebrate their love. From a classic understated box of chocolates to an over-the-top showstopper classic car, nothing gives more pleasure than knowing you have found that one thing that will make your sweetheart smile.

Florence twilight.<(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Unfortunately, research has shown that the thrill of a new possession fades quickly. Instead, the pleasure of an experience, especially one shared as a couple, lasts much longer. Rather than a gift that can be wrapped in a bow, this year think “outside the box” and opt for something that will make memories to last a lifetime. In short, diamonds are neither a girl's best friend nor forever, but a vacation in Italy and the memories made during your trip can be both of those things!

For an extra romantic touch to your trip, here are a few suggestions perfect for a vacationing couple:

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Carnevale Sweets in Italy

Italy is not a country where keeping your New Year's resolutions is going to be easy. Though the Mediterranean diet is said to be one of the healthiest in the world, it is also laden with carbohydrates, complimented by wine, and so delicious that it's often a challenge to stick to reasonable portion sizes.

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

In addition, it doesn't help that shortly after taking down the holiday decorations and hunkering down to lose your Christmas 5 (or, ahem, 10), Carnevale begins. This historic, month-long festival counting down the weeks before Easter is celebrated with elaborate costumes, boisterous parades and parties, and overindulgence in all things fried and sugared. If you are visiting Italy during Carnevale, be sure to sample some of the delectable and excessive treats that are only found at this time of year!

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Five Great Italian Desserts for the Holidays

There's nothing like a touch of Italy on the holiday table, from great hard-to-find wines to local specialties like truffle sauce or extra virgin olive oil carefully tucked away and carried back in luggage from your latest trip. If you've exhausted your vacation cupboard by the time Christmas rolls around, preparing a traditional dish can add a bit of old world glamour to your table.

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

Though a towering plate of pasta may be too much of a departure from tradition for your holiday feast, even the most old school guests will appreciate an Italian dessert. Like all Italian food, Italy's desserts are relatively simple and must be made with the best fresh ingredients. Here are a few crowd-pleasers sure to bring just the right touch of the Bel Paese to your holiday celebration this year:

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Trevi's Black Celery Festival

In addition to applying highly-regulated geographical indications and denominations to Italy's many traditional specialties to ensure their authenticity, Italians also promote these foods with annual festivals, often called sagre, featuring dishes prepared with the celebrated ingredient in a myriad of forms. One of our favorites is the Festa del Sedano Nero, or Black Celery Festival, held each fall in the picturesque Umbrian hilltown of Trevi.

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

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The Italian Bar

One detail about Italy that strikes first time visitors is the ubiquitousness of the bar. Virtually every street corner, main square, and side alley is home to at least one...and often two or three, located just a storefront away from each other. For the uninitiated, the sight of so many signs emblazoned with the word “bar” can be perplexing. Do Italians really spend that much time quaffing beer in rowdy, smoky watering holes?

P4171354(Photo by Philip Sheldrake via Flickr)

The answer is no, though they do occasionally spend an evening at the “pub”, which is the word used in Italy to indicate what most Americans would call a bar. Here, business booms after dinner, the main beverage is beer or other alcoholic drinks, and the atmosphere is typical of the sports bar.

What Italians call a “bar”, on the other hand, is a hybrid space, unique to Italy, which combines a café and community center, newspaper stand, tobacco shop, and/or bakery. The bar in Italy is one of the most important focal points of a neighborhood or town, where gossip is exchanged, friends meet, and, of course, espresso is consumed. Lots of espresso.

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Cocktails in Rome

Until very recently, Italy was not a country known for its mixology. With the exception of a limited number of homegrown aperitifs, your best bet for an evening drink was a glass of excellent local wine or, after dinner, an artisan digestivo. That has changed over the past few years, as the global cocktail trend has reached Italy and speakeasies and cocktail bars have come to replace the neighborhood café as the hip spot to unwind and socialize in the evening.

cocktail sunset roma(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though you can order up a G&T with small batch gin and artisanal imported tonic even in the more fashionable provincial bars, the best cocktails are found in Italy's most cosmopolitan cities. Rome has become known as the nation's mixology capital: from swank rooftop lounges to trendy speakeasies, there are an array of interesting options in the Eternal City for an aperitivo or nightcap. Here are some of the current favorites: Read More...

Fall's Figs

One of our favorite seasons in Italy is fall. The weather is milder, the crowds have thinned, and the seasonal produce is piled high in market stalls.

Alongside the seasonal grapes, chestnuts, mushrooms, and pears is one of the most delectable fruits in the Mediterranean...common in Italy but much rarer in the US: figs.

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

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Five Favorite Restaurants: 2016

We, like millions of Italophiles worldwide, were saddened last week by news of the terrible loss of life and property in the bucolic villages in the Appennine mountains straddling the regional borders between Lazio, Umbria, and Le Marche. The earthquake which struck this area was one of the country's most serious in recent years, and was a stark reminder of how precious - and how tenuous - Italy's cultural heritage and historic landscapes are.

As our thoughts turned to selecting the favorite restaurants we've enjoyed in the past 12 months for our annual short list, we remembered the two Sunday lunches we have enjoyed in the towns of Amatrice and Accumoli, both of which were largely destroyed in the initial quake and aftershocks. This area is about an hour and a half from our home in Foligno, the perfect distance for a Sunday drive and lunch, with breathtaking scenery of rugged mountain slopes dotted with tiny, rustic villages along the drive.

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

Amatrice was the home of the iconic Hotel Roma, famous for its Spaghetti all'Amatriciana and a beloved destination for families and groups of friends looking for a break from the city. Over the years, the hotel's restaurant expanded a bit too much for our taste, becoming more of a “dining hall” than a restaurant, and its Amatriciana probably suffered. That said, Hotel Roma was a landmark, serving traditional cuisine to a dining room teeming with extended families enjoying Sunday lunch in the countryside. It has now been completely destroyed.

good-times-accumoli-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

For Pasquetta two years ago, a friend invited us to his hometown of Accumoli, a tiny village not far from Amatrice, and the family served an unforgettable rustic lunch of lamb chops. It was a perfect day, with a bright blue sky overhead and fresh mountain air ideal for working up an appetite. Over the years, this hill town had become primarily a country respite for Romans, with a heavy migration of locals moving to Rome for work. It was heavily damaged in the earthquake, and almost a dozen locals were killed in collapsed houses.

lamb-chops-accumoli-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

It is hard for us to contemplate the scope of the tragedy that has befallen these two beautiful towns, but we hope that the spirit of family and community that they nourished over the years will inspire a commitment to rebuild so that one day we can return.

In the meantime, here are five restaurants where we have had unforgettable meals recently: Read More...

Putting Up: Italy's Fruit Preserves

It's that time of year when grocery stores in Italy are stocked with a dozen different shapes and sizes of glass canning jars and bottles, and many Italians spend the weekend chopping and seeding fruit to make a variety of different sweet and savory preserves. The canning season peaks in summer, as tomatoes ripen for canned sauce (or, for the purists, whole peeled tomatoes), and peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, and other stone fruits are at their best. But Italians preserve well into the winter, cooking up pots of orange and lemon marmelade and jams made from quince and persimmon to give as Christmas gifts or brighten up breakfast.

DSC_0118(Photo by Brunifia via Flickr)

Italy has a strong tradition of preserving everything from meat to vegetables, rooted in millenia of poor rural agricultural economies where frugality made the difference between surviving the winter months and leaner seasons. Though most Italians now live in cities and no longer have a kitchen garden or orchard, come summer you will still see customers purchasing cases of fresh seasonal fruit or ripe San Marzano tomatoes at the local market to make homemade preserves just like their grandparents. Though most of this goodness is limited to family consumption, there are also excellent artisan and farm preserves which can be bought and samples at local gourmet shops and farm stores.

DSC_3987red(Photo by BestKevin via Flickr)

Here are a few to seek out and bring home:

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Italy's Homegrown Soft Drinks

Of all the possible beverages travelers can sample in Italy, the least local and most prone to invasion from international powerhouses like Coca-Cola is certainly soft drinks. Fiercely territorial about their regional wines and loyal to their domestic coffee roasters, Italians have no qualms guzzling Coke and Fanta and the increasing popularity of sugary drinks among children is one of the many factors behind a rise in childhood obesity in this historically healthy and fit country.

Noto: aperitivo(Photo by Stijn Nieuwendijk via Flickr)

But just because these familiar brands are ubiquitous doesn't mean that they don't have their scrappy local competitors. In fact, Italy has a number of homegrown soft drinks that are less well-known but definitely worth seeking out. Generally, Italians still don't serve sodas at meals to anyone over about 14 - with the exception of pizza - but the next time you stop at a bar or caffè for a respite from a hot afternoon of touring, instead of a beer or Coke to cool you down, try one of these truly Italian soft drinks.
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Three Unforgettable Sicily Food Experiences

We have always been in love with this unique island and its culture and cuisine. During a recent visit on the hunt for new experiences and accommodations for our travelers, we were reminded of a few of our favorites: granita, Donna Fugata wines, and a fish market lunch.

granita-pistacchio-limone(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Sicilian Sweets at La Pasticceria Maria Grammatico

Italy is a country of unique regions, stitched together in a patchwork of individual histories and cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than Sicily, both a region and an island, and so different from mainland Italy from its dialect to its cuisine that it sometimes feels like a separate country altogether.

view-from-eric-sicily-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Italy via Flickr)

Take the island's famous pastries and desserts, dramatically different from those in the rest of Italy and influenced by Sicily's millenia of contact with seafaring cultures from across the globe. Almonds, oranges, and spices arrived from the Middle East and the Orient, cocoa beans from the New World, and Sicily's own shepherds provided the fresh ricotta that the island's nuns used to develop some of Europe's most luscious pastries.

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Eating Cicchetti in Venice

Venice has the unfortunate (and undeserved) reputation of being one of the few places in Italy where the restaurants are expensive and not particularly good. Though it’s true that there is a concentration of “tourist-trap” eateries along the main thoroughfares, it’s also true that La Serenissima is a place where it’s easy to distance yourself from the crowds and find small, neighborhood trattorias where the dishes are excellent and prices reasonable.

(Photo by seventyoneplace via Flickr)

To enjoy a truly traditional Venetian eating experience that won’t break the bank, consider making a meal out of cicchetti. Venice’s version of tapas, these bite-sized appetizers can range from marinated olives to small portions of meat or fish, and from late afternoon through the dinner hour (and sometimes midday, as well), the city’s tiny bars—called *bàcari*--have their counters crowded with overflowing platters of a tempting array of cicchetti, to be washed down with a small glass of wine, known locally as an ombra.

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Spring Beans: The Versatile Fava

Italy has many signs of spring, from umbrellas popping up on city streets to ward off sudden showers to the countryside blooming with the first flowers.

Fava Beans(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the most pleasant changes with the season is at the morning market, where winter citrus and hearty vegetables like broccoli and black cabbage are replaced by bundles of foraged wild asparagus, towering pyramids of artichokes, and, most importantly, haphazard piles of oversized fava bean pods.
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Italy's Protected Foods: Deciphering STG, IGP, and DOP Labels

There have been a number of news items recently regarding cases of fraud and adulteration involving some of Italy's most important foods, including extra-virgin olive oil and parmigiano cheese. Though any type of consumer deceit is both wrong and illegal, those which damage the reputation and sully the name of traditional artisanal foods are particularly galling to Italians, where there is a strong and deeply-rooted culinary tradition...if you have any doubts, just take a look at the diplomatic incident between France and Italy last week around the humble carbonara.

parmigiano-parma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Food quality is so important to Italians that the country has gone to great lengths to support producers and protect the integrity of their products by establishing strict criteria and guidelines to ensure authenticity, and clear labelling rules to guarantee that the consumer is getting what they pay for. Over the past twenty years, the European Union and Italy have created a system of highly-regulated geographical indications and denominations, first introduced in 1992 and further expanded in 2012. They may seem like a confusing alphabet soup at first glance, but once you understand how they work, these labels are a reliable way to determine if what you are eating is a genuine Italian specialty, or a low-quality knock-off.
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Pork: Italy's Favorite White Meat

Italy's historic “cucina povera” rustic cuisine is heavily influenced by the deeply-rooted Italian tradition of rural families raising and home-butchering a pig (or two) each winter to see them through the year. Pigs are one of the easiest and most inexpensive stock animals to raise, and for centuries the symbiotic relationship between grazing pigs on acorns and chestnuts from the towering trees lining sown fields, which were in turn - ahem - fertilized by the foraging animals' passage, was essential in keeping Italy's tiny subsistence family farms productive and maintaining the picturesque patchwork countryside of fields and woods that covers much of the country.

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

Though the custom of raising a family pig is gradually disappearing as the Italian population becomes increasingly urban and wealthy, the popularity and ubiquity of pork in the national diet continues. From charcuterie to grilled ribs, Italians love their excellent domestic pork and don't shy away from thick, flavorful ribbons of fat running through their *prosciutto* and lining their chops or, in the case of lardo di colonnata, served thinly sliced on toasted bread. Be sure to sample some quality local pork while visiting Italy, and you'll understand why this delicious specialty is Italy's favorite white meat.
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Breakfast in Italy

Though you are likely to have some of the most memorable meals in your life while traveling in Italy, breakfast will probably not be one of them. In a country where the cuisine is based on local traditions, fresh ingredients, and nutritiously sound principles, the average breakfast in most of the country is a perplexing aberration.

Alongside their cappuccino or tea, an Italian will gulp down a “cornetto” if having breakfast at the corner bar - what cafés are called in Italy - or a handful of breakfast cookies (yes, cookies) and a fruit juice or yogurt if eating at home. There is very little variety at the breakfast table, though Kellogg cereals have started to become popular over the past decade, and what little variety there is remains within the category of highly sweetened and refined processed foods.

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

Of course, breakfast wasn't always like this. Most older Italians, especially those from the small towns and rural areas, remember growing up with a savory breakfast of legumes, bread and olive oil, or homemade charcuterie and cheeses. As excellently explained in this Eater article, the post-war economic prosperity and the shift away from an agricultural economy spawned both the trend of eating breakfast at the bar and the rise in commercial breakfast foods, primarily mass-produced frozen or packaged cornetti and breakfast cookies. What is considered the “traditional” morning repast in Italy now isn't traditional at all, but a cultural phenomenon that began in the 1970's.

So, what are your breakfast options in Italy? Here is an overview:

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Italy's Beef from Ranch to Restaurant

As far as national identity goes, Italy is more associated with pork than beef. From prosciutto to lardo di colonnata, the lion's share of Italy's most recognized charcuterie and grilled cuts are made from its domestic pigs. Pigs are less expensive to raise and butcher than beef, and pork is one of the pillars of the country's historic “cucina povera”, or rural cuisine, tradition.

IMG_0388(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The postwar boom brought both wealth and urbanization to Italy, and average Italians began sitting down to a large steak for the first time in the country's history. Even Dario Cecchini, Italy's celebrity butcher and proselytizer of the famous Fiorentina, ate his first steak at age 18 to celebrate his birthday. As a modest family of butchers and laborers, the Cecchinis' diet was based on the cheapest cuts of pork and beef, offal, and charcuterie, which Dario remembers fondly and continues to prepare in his shop and restaurant.

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

Though the more prestigious cuts of beef have not been a historical mainstay of the Italian diet, the beef raised in Italy today is among the world's finest, using heirloom breeds, open grazing, and limited and strictly regulated pharmaceuticals. If you are hankering for an excellent cutlet or tartare the next time you're in Italy, here are a few facts about Italian beef to help you choose the most mouth-watering cut.

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Italy's Daily Bread: A Guide

An Italian may dine without wine on occasion. An Italian may even skip the pasta, skimp on the olive oil, or shun parmigiano. But a meal without bread in Italy is akin to sacrilege.

Leavened bread has been a staple of the Italian diet since Roman times, when the improvement in milling techniques and appearance of higher quality grains from Asia like wheat, replacing spelt and barley, brought about an explosion of bakeries and types of bread. In the 2,000 years hence, the variety of breads in Italy has become as vast and unique as other regional specialties including cheese, pasta, and charcuterie.

Seeded wholemeal spelt loaf with honey(Photo by Melizza via Flickr)

Today, most Italians buy fresh bread each day either from the neighborhood “fornaio” or from the local grocery store, many of which stock bread from local bakeries. Bread is consumed fresh with meals, and day-old or stale bread is used in a number of traditional recipes, including panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, and ribollita. Mopping the tasty leftover sauce from your plate with a slice of bread is a beloved informal tradition known as the “scarpetta”, or little shoe, but is generally frowned upon in fine dining establishments and in polite company.

Antica Focacceria S. Francesco HDR by sailorman627(Photo by James Helland via Flickr)

Here is a guide to some of the most common types of bread found in Italy to help you navigate the pane, panini, and panetti the next time you're dining in Italy!
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Italy's Winter Citrus

In the US, where pretty much all produce is available in grocery stores all year round, it's easy to forget that most fruits and vegetables are seasonal. Not so in Italy, where seasonality continues to dictate markets and menus, a constant reminder of the 12 month cycle of everything from artichokes to chestnuts.

lemon-tree-winter-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

With winter comes citrus season in Italy, when oranges from the south are shipped across the peninsula and piled high in shops, given by the crate for Christmas gifts, used in holiday dishes or simply presented in towering bowls after meals as the fruit course.

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Christmas Traditions in Italy

Though the consumerism that plagues the Christmas holidays in the US is slowly creeping across the Atlantic, an Italian Christmas continues to focus on the same values of faith, family, and food that lie at the foundation of Italy's culture in general. Each year, holiday decorations expand, Santa nudges out the historic holiday symbols a bit more, and the shopping season begins a few weeks earlier (this year there were even Black Friday sales), but Christmas in Italy continues to have a simple, traditional feel despite encroachments from the New World.

christmas-gubbio-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are planning a get-away over the winter holidays in Italy, here are a few unique Christmas traditions for an unforgettable Natale! Read More...

New World Foods on Italy's Plate

We all know how much Italy has influenced the United States over the past four or five hundred years. From the Genoa native Christopher Columbus in the 15th century and the waves of Italian immigrants which permanently changed the demographics of the East Coast in the 1800s, to the great contemporary fashion and design houses dictating trends from Milan today, Italy is a constant presence in America's history and culture.

But what of how the New World has influenced Italy? Though you can certainly see your share of Levi's and Timberland boots on the streets of Rome and Florence, and tourism and exports to the US are a large slice of the Italian economy, arguably the most important influence the Americas have had on Italy since Colombus' first voyage has been on cuisine.

Spaghetti al pomodoro(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

With the love Americans show daily for pizza, pasta, cappuccino, gelato - the list goes on - it may seem like this culinary influence has run almost exclusively from Old World to New. But a close look at some of the ingredients in Italy's most iconic dishes reveals that without a number of fruits and vegetables indigenous to American soil, many of these favorites wouldn't exist today.
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What We're Drinking, Part 3: Outstanding Italian Beers On Our Table

It's that time of year again when festive menus are planned, hostess gifts purchased, and holiday wish lists compiled...which is why it's the perfect moment to update our annual roundup of what we've been drinking and collecting during the last 12 months of our Italian travels.

forst-beer-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Our past editions have focused on the quintessential Italian beverage: wine. Though domestic - or, more accurately, regional - reds and whites are still by far the most popular choice in Italy, the explosion of Italian craft beers over the past few years has drawn our attention and we have been impressed with the excellent brews that are on the market.

So the next time you are visiting the Bel Paese, or are looking for a unique gift or pairing during the holidays in the US, consider trying one of Italy's creative artisanal beers and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised!
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A Halloween Homage to Italy's Tasty Bones

Sure, we could celebrate Halloween by mentioning the spooky or downright horrific sights there are to see in Italy. But given that the holiday calls for the rattling of bones, we decided to bring up two of the tastiest “bony” dishes that you can sample on traditional Italian menus during the chilly autumn season.
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Pizza: The Dos and Don'ts

Last week we all gave homage to our favorite Italian staple during World Pasta Day. Today we are going to celebrate the second most recognized and beloved dish from the Bel Paese: pizza.

Pizza Napolitana(Photo by Edsel Little via Flickr)

Pizza lore is rich in history and myth. Though the first mention of pizza by name dates to the first millennium AD, the practice of adding toppings to flavor flat breads has been around since humans began leavening and baking bread in the Neolithic age. It was in southern Italy, however, that pizza as we know it today evolved: first as simply a plain flat bread, then flavored with olive oil and tomatoes, imported after the discovery of the New World, and finally as a crust supporting an infinite number of toppings.
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Fish and Seafood in Italy

When considering Italian food, most people conjure up images of pasta and pizza, prosciutto and parmigiano, polenta and panini...lots of carbohydrates, meats, and cheeses. Though these are all foundations of Italian cuisine, what many travelers don't realize until they visit Italy is how many of the traditional dishes are based on fish and seafood. This should come as no surprise, given that almost all of Italy's 20 regions have a stretch of coastline along the Mediterranean (the exceptions being the far northern regions stretching along the Alps, and inland Umbria), so the bounty of the sea is both fresh and, if you purchase the catch of the day directly from the docks in the morning, relatively inexpensive.

fish-primer-cr-maria-landers(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Once it has been prepared and served in a waterfront restaurant, Italy's fish and seafood become significantly more pricey, but don't let that put you off. At least one meal in Italy should be dedicated to its marine delicacies (more than that if you are visiting Venice, the Amalfi Coast, Puglia, or any number of destinations along the coastline where fish and seafood dominate the menu), and here is a short guide to some of the most common varieties you will find.

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Street Food in Italy

Italy is a country founded on leisurely sit down meals, which begin and end with drinks, but which are all about quality food in the middle. If you want to savor the best dishes this country has to offer, it is best done slowly around a raucous table of friends and family. Or slowly around a quiet table overlooking the Mediterranean. Or slowly around a tiny table in the Dolomites. But, in any case, slowly and seated at a table.

street food(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

That said, sometimes when you are feeling a bit peckish or simply don't have the patience to sit through a long meal, you need to cut to the chase and top off your tank with a mobile snack. Despite the insidious growth of international fast food chains in Italy, there are still a number of excellent and traditional street foods that will appease your appetite, satisfy your palate, and hardly slow your pace at all.
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Italy's Best Frozen Treats

There's no getting around it: Italy is hot in the summer. Though you may find respite if you happen to be hiking its highest peaks or cooling your heels on the coast, the inland countryside and the major cities can be almost unbearable on humid summer afternoons.

If you feel yourself dragging from the Mediterranean heat - or, more likely, feel your kids are dragging from the heat - there's nothing like a frozen treat to use as an incentive, a reward, or simply a lifesaving pick-me-up to make it through those last few hours until the sun begins to set and temperatures - and tempers - cool off a bit.

ice-cream-tower-montefalco(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Here are a few icy sweets you'll find in Italy that may just make the difference between momentary moodiness and a major meltdown:
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Taste of Summer: Tomatoes take Center Stage

Italian cuisine is famously seasonal, and that is especially true when the summer bounty is at its height. During the months from May to October, the outdoor markets are overflowing with the some of the most flavorful fruit and vegetables you can find, beginning with the first sun-ripened strawberries and asparagus and finishing off with grapes and mushrooms as the temperatures fall, and this produce is the foundation of the season's menus in homes and restaurants down the peninsula.

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

Between those two edible bookends, there are tomatoes. This fruit-which-self-identifies-as-a-vegetable is the foundation of many of Italy's most beloved dishes...though, of course, it was brought back to Europe from the New World during the Renaissance along with the potato, corn, and cocoa bean. Tasting a genuine, pungently flavorful, authentic garden tomato is a life-altering experience, and you will find it almost impossible to go back to tasteless, out of season supermarket tomatoes.

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!
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Traveling Italy as Vegetarian, Celiac, or with Food Allergies

Traveling inevitably means eating out either often or exclusively, which can be a minefield for those who follow special diets or have food allergies. Italy is the land of good food, and can be surprisingly easy to navigate for some types of diets and surprisingly difficult for others. Here is a quick guide for eating in Italy for vegetarians, those who suffer from celiac disease, and those with food allergies.

Dining al fresco(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Lardo di Colonnata: Fatback at its Best

While the rest of the western world may be moving towards low-fat foods, Italy clings steadfastly to its fatty treats. Creamy cappuccino is made with luscious whole milk, cheeses leave a perfect patina in your mouth to cut the tannins of robust wines, and charcuterie from prosciutto to 'nduja are not shy about their pork fat content. But perhaps the gourmet specialty most in-your-face about its lard is, well, lardo...or, better, that divinely herbed and aged fatback known as Lardo di Colonnata.

lardo-di-colonnata-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Gelato: Secrets and Discoveries

Any repeat traveler to Italy knows to make two stops as soon as their plane touches down on Italian soil. One is to the nearest bar for a decent caffè. And the second is to the gelateria for a decent gelato.

Gelato(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Wine Tasting in Chianti

There are few products in the world which came as close to being a victim of their own success as Chianti Classico, the iconic red wine produced in a small vineyard-covered area of Tuscany dotted with tiny hilltop villages, quiet country churches, and lone rustic castles, and criss-crossed by the kind of winding country roads that just beg to be explored.

IMG_2685(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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So, You Want to Take a Cooking Class....

There is no better lens through which to view and understand Italy's landscape, history, and culture than its cuisine.

cooking-class-roma-cr-maria-landers(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We encourage travelers to Italy to participate in a cooking class while visiting, and often find that it is one of the most memorable experiences of their entire trip. If you are curious as to how to recreate some of the amazing dishes you've sampled in Italy, there is no better way than hands-on experience.
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Wild Greens in Italy

Despite sweeping, well-stocked supermarkets and access to varied, seasonal produce, Italians remain avid foragers...a habit harking back to a time when peasant families lived barely above subsistence level and much of the day's meals would come from what was found in the woods and pastures: mushrooms and truffles, wild berries and asparagus, game, and most of all, field greens.

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

We were guests recently on a foraging excursion, and later feasted on our finds.

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Five Favorite Restaurants

One of the best things about our job is seeking out the best restaurants in Italy to recommend to our travelers. One of the toughest things about this job is selecting our favorites. In virtually every Italian destination, there are several places where you could have the meal of a lifetime. We've created this short list of places where we've eaten recently, very short - our top five, from a Michelin-starred destination restaurant to a humble village osteria. Our picks are diverse in style, but are united by the common and, to us, essential theme of local, traditional cuisine, concentrating on classic, historic dishes and/or locally grown or foraged ingredients.

black-truffle-san-pietro-a-pettine-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are visiting Italy in 2015 and want to sit down to an unforgettable meal, search out these winners:
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Spring Bounty: Italy's Artichokes

It may not seem like it from where you are, peering out over banks of snow up to your chin or hunkered down against the polar chill with a cup of hot tea, but Spring is just around the corner. Signs of it are popping up across admittedly more temperate Italy, from budding daffodils to chirping birds to overflowing farmers' markets.

We love the outdoor markets in Italy, especially in spring and fall when the variety and selection are particularly tempting. One of the hallmarks of Italian cuisine, and surely the secret of its excellence, is how seasonal the dishes are; Italians base their menu on what ingredients are at their peak in any given moment, and many restaurants have daily menus based on what looked good at the market that morning.

artichokes-italy-cr-aldo-messina(Photo by Aldo Messina for Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Right now, the first of the spring produce is starting to roll in, including one of Italy's favorite vegetables: artichokes. Towering pyramids of carciofi, primarily Cimaroli, also known as Mammole Romane, notable for its large bulb, tiny choke, and tender leaves, fill the market stalls from February to May, tempting shoppers with their round, compact, violet-tinged heads.

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Balsamic Vinegar Tour

Emilia Romagna is a region famous for its food, most notably Parma’s prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano and Bologna’s tortelloni. But just a short drive from both of these cities, traveling gourmands can stop in the countryside outside of Modena or Reggio Emilia to sample another of the region’s unique specialties: balsamic vinegar.

balsamic-vinegar-reggio-emilia-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are thinking of that jarringly sweet syrup that has become vogue to dribble on anything from salad to steak, think again. Supermarket shelves are stocked with cheap commercial knock-offs, but real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is a costly and prized elixir, sporting an EU protected status as rigorous as that of wine.
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Parma Food Tour

There are places in Italy where you also visit for the food. Puglia has its wonderful Baroque and beaches, and also the food. Sicily has its unique history and culture, and also the food. Tuscany is all wine and landscapes...and also the food.

Emilia Romagna, specifically the area surrounding Parma, is pretty much only the food. Yes, there are a few interesting cities to visit, and, as in all of Italy, there are important historical sites and museums. But let’s face it: the main reason for stopping in Parma and environs is to eat, so much so that this area is known in Italy as “Food Valley”.

wall-of-prosciutto-parma-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Parma’s most famous products are prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, its dried and aged ham and iconic cheese. The nearby city of Modena is home to Italy’s most prestigious balsamic vinegar (check back Friday for more details!), and, if you are still hungry, you can head to Bologna for egg pasta, in particular tortellini. The best way to fit in tastings for all the best of these local products in one day is on a food tour, where you visit producers and see the process up close, and then taste directly from the source.
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Pandoro vs. Panettone: A Showdown

Just as the world is divided into cat people and dog people, night owls and early risers, believers and skeptics, so is it divided into Team Pandoro and Team Panettone, and come Christmas in Italy each year, a deep rift rips through this country as everyone from toddler to elder declares their loyalty.

pandorato-cova-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

These two icons of Italian holiday food are similar yet profoundly different, both just sweet enough to be served at breakfast or for dessert, both ubiquitous on supermarket shelves from late November through early January (but best purchased at artisan bakeries), and both exchanged as a holiday gift in the almost cliché way Americans once exchanged fruitcakes. Yet their subtle differences make them altogether two different cakes, each of which seems to be a love or hate proposition for many.
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Chestnuts: Italy's Best Kept Fall Secret

Fall is the key season for a number the most well-known (and beloved) staples of Italian cuisine. Grapes and olives are harvested in fall, quickly yielding the year's new wine and fresh-pressed oil. Foraging and hunting hit their peak in fall, and much of Italy serves mushrooms, truffles, and game at their autumn Sunday meals. Fall is also when many Italians begin to home-butcher their pigs, and put up salame and sausages to cure through the winter months.

Roasted Chestnuts(Photo via Flickr by Allen Brewer)

But few know that there is another fall treat that dominates Italy's menus (and chilly evenings around the fire): chestnuts.
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Fave dei Morti: A Sweet Treat for A Bittersweet Holiday

Americans may have their candy corn and color-themed Reese’s Pieces, but Italy has a seasonal sweet much more tempting come the end of October.

fave-dei-morti-italy-cr-rebecca-winke(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Pasticcerie throughout central Italy begin turning out fave dei morti (sometimes called ossa dei morti)--beans (or bones) of the dead--a few weeks before All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These soft almond cookies, sometimes laced with cinnamon, citrus, or rum, are covered in granulated sugar and baked into an oval bean (or slightly longer bone) shape until just barely golden.
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Bologna: The Stopover Worth a Stay

Though Bologna is perfectly positioned as a stopover between Florence and Venice, this bustling university town—the largest in Emilia Romagna—can easily be considered a destination itself.

Street view in Bologna(Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr)

Famous for its excellent cuisine, home to the world’s oldest university (and with a history shaped by the millenia-long conflict between the secular academic world and the religious Catholic one), and with an elegant city center offering excellent shopping and sightseeing, take time to spend an overnight here before moving on either north or south.
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Hunting Truffles in Italy

Of all the pleasures unique to Italy in the fall—the soft, golden light, the balmy days and crisp nights, the relative post-summer calm of many of the cities and towns—perhaps the most memorable comes in the form of the deceptively humble yet truly divine truffle.

black-truffles-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the world’s most expensive delicacies, truffles can be found all year round depending upon their type and terrain, but the most abundant season is the late autumn when the wood-covered slopes of the central Italian Apennines of Umbria and Tuscany and the Alps in northern Piedmont become treasure troves for local foragers and their faithful trained assistants.
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La Trattoria di Famiglia: An Italian Icon

There are many ways in which Italy is, sadly, losing a bit of that “italianità” that has made it such a beloved destination for travelers for centuries. Village centers are struggling as shoppers flock to big discount box stores. Packaged convenience foods are becoming more common and long, home-cooked lunches at home less.

Trattoria(Photo by Damien Oz via Flickr)

One tradition that seems to be stronger than ever is the small, family-owned trattoria. These (often historic) eateries line quiet side streets and piazzas everywhere from the smallest country hamlets to the bustling cities of Rome and Florence, and thrive despite the menacing growth of fast food chains and kebob shops. Read More...

Pasta Primer for Italy

Italy means many different things to many different people. For some, it is the land of their ancestors, a vaguely legendary departure point from which great-great grandparents left for more prosperous shores. For others, it is a cultural paradise, where the highest concentration of the world’s art, architecture, and archaeological sites beckon. For others, it’s the hotbed of chic contemporary design, birthplace of sleek cars and stiletto heels.

Trapani(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But no matter what your personal iconography may be, there is one symbol of Italy that unites the world: pasta. Read More...

Italy's Street Food: Porchetta

Italy is not a street food sort of culture. Here, meals are strictly sit-down affairs, with families gathering around the table twice a day to enjoy long, multiple-course lunches and dinners steeped in local culinary history and culture.

porchetta-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

In central Italy, however (especially Tuscany and Umbria), the king of all street food is porchetta. Read More...

On the Plate and In the Glass in Piedmont's Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato

Though arguably all destinations in Italy could be considered a Shangri-La for lovers of excellent food and wine, nowhere is this more true than the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato wine country of southern Piedmont, just an hour by car from the bustling metropolis of Turin but worlds away in both pace and scenery.

castello-grinzane-cavour-langhe-italy-cr-brian-dorePhoto by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr

Le Langhe-Roero and Monferrato have recently gotten a bit of press, as they were added to the UNESCO’s register of World Heritage Sites in the first half of 2014. Citing the area’s uniquely beautiful landscapes—including five rolling wine growing districts, the Castle of Cavour, and pretty stone hilltowns of Serralunga, Nieve, Barolo, and Bra—and the long history of local winemaking—which has probably flourished since the time of the Etruscans five centuries before the birth of Christ—the UNESCO nomination only highlighted what lovers of Piedmont have known for years: this corner of Italy offers some of the most memorable meals (and photo-ops) in the entire country. Read More...

Exploring the Dolomites in Summer

When a mountain chain is recognized by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, you know it must have something special going for it. And the Dolomites, a group of almost 20 peaks which top 3,000 meters, covering the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige/SudTirol in the Alps straddling the Italian-Austrian border, are indeed spectacular.

Dolomites(Photo by F Deventhal via Flickr)

Though Italy is most known for its historic cities and photogenic coast, it is also a country of mountains. From the rumbling volcanoes in its southern-most reaches (and islands), through the Apennines which run almost the entire length of the Italian peninsula like the country’s rugged backbone, up to the Alps separating Italy from its northern neighbors, there are peaks in almost every Italian region. Read More...

Deciphering Your Restaurant Bill in Italy: Coperto, Servizio, and Tipping

Travelers to Italy often scratch their heads when presented with their restaurant bill. Though sales tax is (thankfully) included in the item prices, a number of mystery charges suddenly seem to surface when it is time to settle up. To avoid unpleasant surprises, here’s a quick overview of what these charges mean and when they apply:

Aperitivo(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Nocino: Italy's Most Beloved Digestivo

Just yesterday, Italians celebrated the Feast Day of Saint John—or the Festa di San Giovanni—with food, fireworks, and showy pageantry. At least, that’s how citizens marked the day in some of Italy’s biggest and most cosmopolitan cities. In the quiet countryside, however, this saint’s day was observed with a much humbler but no less traditional rite: gathering green walnuts to put up the annual batch of one of Italy’s most popular digestive liqueurs, Nocino.

Italians have penchant for digestivi (the function of which, as the name suggests, is to settle the stomach after overindulging at the table), especially amari, or those bitter elixirs made with infusions of either plants and vegetables or a complex mix of herbs and spices. Mouth-puckeringly alcoholic and tongue-blisteringly aromatic, these drinks are not for the faint of heart (or liver). There are a number of digestivi that any restaurant or home cook will have at the ready to finish off a meal--measuring out no more than three or four sips to be presented in tiny digestivi glasses--but the one served with most pride is the house Nocino.

Tweetable: Across Italy yesterday, home cooks were picking green walnuts to put up this year’s batch of Nocino

Walnuts for Nocino(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Belli Bellini

How well do you know your Bellini, that deceptively simple combination of just two ingredients—Prosecco and peach nectar—into a delighfully refreshing cocktail? Here’s a pop quiz:

  • The best Bellini in Venice can be had at Harry’s Bar, where it was famously invented in the 1940s.
  • A Bellini has a distinct dusty rose color, which comes from the color of the pureéd peaches.
  • No peach nectar, no Bellini.

All three are true, right?

Wrong.

We were recently treated to hands-down the most delicious Bellini now being served in Venice, the signature cocktail of one of the city’s most respected mixologists, award-winning cocktail innovator Marino Lucchetti.

Bellini cocktail at the Londra Palace, Venice(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

From Young to Aged: Italy’s Best Cheeses

There are many things visitors should do while in Italy, from taking in this country’s enormous wealth of art and architecture (did you know that Italy is home to the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites and roughly half the world’s artistic treasures?) to rubbing elbows with the locals at the morning markets to simply slowing their travel pace and adopting—at least temporarily—the joie de vivre that Italy does best.

DSC02509(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

There is one thing, however, that visitors should absolutely not do while in Italy, and that one thing is diet. Though touted as one of the world’s healthiest, the Mediterranean diet with its staples of pasta, olive oil, wine, and gelato is not friendly to anyone’s waistline after a couple of weeks of holiday over-indulging. That said, the quality that has made Italy’s cuisine one of the world’s most beloved more than makes up for the few extra pounds that enthusiastic sampling is likely to bring. Read More...

Our Secret Florence

Shh! Can you keep a secret? We’re about to reveal some of our favorite hiding-in-plain-sight spots and highlights in Florence that are just too much fun to keep to ourselves. Read on to see what is getting us excited to be in Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance city this week...(but keep it between us!)

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Rome's Monteverde Nuovo Food Market

Of all of life’s great questions, perhaps the most confounding is this: How does one choose a good artichoke? (hint: they feel heavy and compact)

Carciofi(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Luckily, there is a place in Rome to find an answer to that and many other cooking (and living) conundrums: the Monteverde Nuovo food market.
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Torta di Pasqua

With the arrival of Easter week, outdoor wood-fired ovens across Umbria are stoked to a smoking hot baking temperature as families prepare one of the holiday’s most beloved (and delicious) dishes: torta di Pasqua.

Torta di Pasqua(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

Our Umbrian Easter

One of the things we love best about our business is having the opportunity—the requirement, really—to travel to Italy often and stay for nice long spells. We usually visit the Bel Paese a few times a year for periods ranging from a short couple of weeks to a long, lovely few months, and the timing of our trips vary depending upon what new area we are bent on exploring and sharing with our travelers.

However, there is one annual trip that is a special favorite, and that we very rarely skip: spending the spring holidays (including Easter and--on fortuitous calendar years--the two national holidays falling on April 25th and May 1st) at our home-away-from-home in Umbria, Italy’s serene, hilltown-dotted central region.

Spring in a Vineyard(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Coffee Drinks in Italy

There are many epiphanies that first, second, and third—time visitors have upon arrival in Italy, but perhaps one of the most life-changing of these is Italian coffee...espresso and its derivatives. You may find yourself barely able to stomach the insipid, candy-sweet, or tongue-curling bitter joe you have more or less enjoyed your whole life after tasting the coffee perfection that Italians serve up with matter-of-fact nonchalance across the country.

Espresso (Photo by Den latte ku via Flickr) Read More...

L’Amatriciana and La Gricia: Pasta’s First Cousins

Two of Rome’s classic (and ubiquitous) pasta dishes hail from Amatrice, the tiny mountain town perched in the Apennine peaks between Lazio and neighboring Abruzzo, and home to centuries of semi-nomadic shepherds.

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Ordering at a Restaurant in Italy: Rules and Exceptions

There are many ordinary tasks and common customs that are daunting for a first time traveler to any country, including Italy. Things as simple as friendly greetings (buongiorno before lunch, buona sera after), purchases (money is placed on the counter, not directly in the hand; the same is true for your change), and business hours (ah, the beloved early afternoon riposo closure) require thought and a bit of getting used to...and as soon as you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it, you run into an exception.

Bologna

The same is true for eating at a restaurant in Italy. Italian meals are articulated into a number of portate, or courses, and it helps to have a general idea of what each means and how to organize both your order and your meal. And then, of course, how to make an exception. Read More...

Travel Memories Al Dente

We so love making pasta ourselves, that we feel learning to roll out those paper-thin sheets of egg and flour alchemy is a fundamental part of any visit to Italy and we encourage travelers to indulge in a hands-on lesson.

Cooking Class(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr) Read More...

Surprise Sunshine and Serendipity

The snow and ice got Brian and Maria reminiscing about one of their last, unexpectedly balmy days in Italy, while traveling through Puglia’s Salento peninsula this past fall. Read More...

Italy’s Best Charcuterie: From Prosciutto Crudo to ‘Nduja

Of Italy’s iconic foods—pasta, olive oil, truffles, and wine come to mind—perhaps the most humble yet noblest among them are gli affettati, the vast array of cured pork charcuterie that unite everyone from gruff workman, pausing mid-morning to revive themselves with towering pane e prosciutto sandwiches, to chic urbanites, relaxing over an evening aperitivo accompanied by the same prosciutto elegantly wound around thin grissini breadsticks. Read More...

Feast of the Seven Fishes

In the United States, one often hears talk of the “traditional” Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes--an epic seven course seafood meal served on the Vigilia (Christmas Eve)—but if you were to ask an average Italian, you would probably get a blank stare. Read More...

Cappelletti...A Christmas Feast

There are a number of traditional dishes served during the holidays in Italy, which tend to vary from region to region. One of the most common, forming the centerpiece of Christmas lunch in most of the central and northern regions, is cappelletti (also known as tortellini). Read More...

Bringing Food and Wine Souvenirs Back From Italy

You’ve traveled through Italy, enjoying the art and culture, trying out your newly-acquired Italian phrases on the locals, slowing down over a cappuccino or drinks in the piazza, and—most memorably—savoring some of the best meals of your life. It may be hard to recapture the Italian vibe at home, but you can try to recreate some of the Bel Paese’s iconic dishes. The easiest way, of course, would be to bring a sample of Italy’s excellent quality food back to the US with you, but it’s a good idea to be aware of which foods can and can’t be imported to avoid confiscation or hefty fines at the border. Read More...

The Perfect Ending to a Perfect Meal: The Digestivo

Though Italians tend to focus much more of their passion on food than on drink, a full meal in Italy often opens and closes with alcohol: the aperitivo, which “opens the palate” to begin; and the digestivo, which, as its name suggests, serves to aid in digesting the average three to five courses a meal in Italy often includes, as a finale. Read More...

Harvesting the Olives in Italy

Just a few weeks after the last grapes are harvested for the annual vendemmia, the countryside in central and southern Italy is a-buzz again the sounds of the olive harvest.

From October through December, olive groves from Liguria to the southern-most tip of the peninsula are carpeted with netting to catch the precious fruit as it is either hand-picked or, in the southern regions, falls naturally to the ground. Read More...

Autumn Treasures: Alba’s White Truffle Festival

Of all the wonderful seasonal food one can savor in Italy in autumn, perhaps the most sought after (and certainly the most luxurious) is that homely yet princely tuber, the truffle. Found across central and northern Italy, its penetrating, earthy (its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) aroma graces a number of fall dishes from Le Marche to Piedmont, regions where tartufai kitted out with a bisaccia (a traditional leather truffle bag) comb the woods come September hoping to uncover nature’s buried treasure. Read More...

In Season: Five Italian Fall Foods

If you are planning a fall visit to Italy, keep a lookout for these five terrific seasonal specialties on menus and in markets across the country: Read More...

Sicily’s Cous Cous Fest

One of the most well-known food festivals in Italy (and certainly in Sicily) is the annual Cous Cous Fest, held every year in late September in the pretty beach town of San Vito Lo Capo on Sicily’s western shore. Read More...

Where's the beef?

f you are looking for the best beef in Italy, look no further than Chianti, where you can sample some of the country’s finest cuts in the village of Panzano. Read More...

Italy’s Happiest Hour: L’Aperitivo

It is often said that Italy has a “food culture” rather than a “drink culture”, which is largely true. Most socialization happens around the table--not over a round of cocktails--and any sort of gathering necessarily includes a generous buffet ranging from delicate finger foods to hefty lasagne, accompanied by nothing more elaborate than water and wine. Read More...

In Season: Italian Easter Bread

italian easter bread easter antipasto
Image © Concierge in Umbria

For the past few weeks, Italian food stores, sweet shops, and bakeries have been overflowing with Easter goods.

It’s hard to walk a few blocks in any Italian city without being blinded by the sheer amount of plastic wrap keeping all the goodies hidden away until Easter Sunday.

But besides egg-shaped chocolates (yes, they are popular in Italy as well), there are a whole host of savory and only slightly sweet breads that characterize the holiday season for Italians.

Some are typically made at home, while others are almost always sourced from a local baker. Try your hand at making them for your own family this spring.

While the recipes vary a bit by region, here are some of the most common Italian Easter breads.

Colomba Pasquale


italian easter bread easter colomba
Photo by Flickr user Nicola since 1972

Think of a colomba (which also means dove) as the Easter version of panettone.

While the latter has found its way to the U.S., colombe are just starting to show up stateside.

Apart from its shape, which is meant to look like a dove, but looks a bit like a cross, colombe are primarily different from panettones due to their filling – there are typically raisins and less candied fruit – and topping. On colombe, you’ll find a thin layer of meringue topped with whole almonds and sugar pearls.

Colomba Pasquale Recipes

Pane di Pasqua or Gurrugulo (Easter Bread)


italian easter bread
Image © Concierge in Umbria

A sweet bread with a consistency not unlike challah or brioche, this bread is braided, typically in a circle, with eggs nestled into the braid.

Many parts of Italy claim this as a traditional food, though its real origins are quite obscure. Pane di pasqua is also commonly eaten in Greece and many areas of the former Ottoman Empire.

The Italian version has a light anise flavor and brightly colored eggs. You can actually use whole raw eggs if you don’t cook and dye them first. They cook perfectly while the bread bakes.

Pane di Pasqua Recipes

Torta di Pasqua or Torta al Formaggio (Savory Easter Cake)


italian easter bread easter antipasto torta di pasqua
Image © Concierge in Umbria

While the term torta di pasqua is also sometimes used for colombe, it also refers to this rich, savory version.

This bread draws its nickname torta di formaggio or “cheese bread” from the hunks of pecorino cheese buried in the dough that impart a rich, creamy taste. Just the thing you need after abstaining from rich foods during Lent.

Though it’s most associated with Umbria, torta di pasqua is also served in Le Marche and other parts of central Italy. It is traditional to have a slice for breakfast on Easter morning.

Torta di Pasqua Recipes

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

In Season: 5 Italian Spring Foods To Welcome the Season

italian spring foods flower field
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Spring is not only a time to appreciate the first tender flower buds and new leaf shoots signifying nature’s awakening from its winter slumber. It is also when Mother Nature challenges us to her great food scavenger hunt.

In Italy, most of all.

Fluffy fronds of fresh fennel provide a frilly backdrop to newly sprouted daisies. Spindly shoots of segmented, bamboo-like asparagus hide in ditches beside roads or in weeds among olive groves. Explosions of piercing blue star-shaped borage flowers lure you in while the tough, nettle-like stems tease you away.

Spring’s first plants, the most delicate shoots carrying the most subtly verdant flavors of the year, are rapidly springing up around the country, waiting for those food lovers with the patience and perseverance to capture them.

Whether you find yourself in Italy or at home this spring, take advantage of these short-lived spring foods if you can.

Fava Beans | Le Fave


italian spring foods favas with pasta
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Fava beans come in a large, unappealing package, requiring layer after layer of peeling to reach the part worth eating. But believe us, it’s worth the wait. Known also as broad beans for their gargantuan (as far as beans go) size, favas are best in their early youth, while they are still tender enough to be eaten raw, dipped in salt or with a slice of Pecorino cheese.

One of the more interesting fava preparations we’ve encountered was this fave con la barbotta (fava beans with friend pig cheeks).

Fava Bean Recipes

Wild Asparagus | Asparagi Selvatici


italian spring foods wild asparagus pasta
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Like the elusive truffle, wild asparagus foraging locations are a guarded secret. Enthusiasts descend on their favorite spots as early as possible to beat out the competition. Related, though distinct from their cultivated cousins, wild asparagus must be eaten young and small, lest they become woody and inedible.

Though often saved for light, delicate preparations, such as lemon-scented risotto, wild asparagus can hold its own even in meaty dishes, like one of our favorite spring pastas at Ristorante Cesarino in Perugia, Rigatoni “alla carbonara” with sausage and wild asparagus.

Wild Asparagus Recipes

Borage | Boragine


italian spring foods borage flower
Photo by Flickr user cvanstane

Each part of the borage plant – the star-shaped flowers, the herby leaves, and the prickly stems – has a flavor and use in the Italian kitchen that dates back to Roman times, when the plant was prized for its cucumber flavor.

Raviolis stuffed with a mixture of the whole plant are a March delicacy in Liguria, but you can make some parts of the plant last throughout the spring by candying, preserving or juicing the flowers.

Borage Recipes

Beet Greens, Rape or Broccoli Rabe | Bietole


italian spring foods beet greens
Photo by Flickr user [http://www.flickr.com/photos/notahipster/]Stacy Spensley

A cousin of the beet (barbabietole in Italian), bietole greens are found among the weeds of a garden left wild for the winter. Packed with iron, fiber, and calcium, they’re a tasty add-on to many recipes, such as spinach gnudi or pasta with sausage, and even stupendous when simply sautéed with garlic.

Though the bietole you find wild in Italy aren’t quite broccoli rabe or sugar beet greens, those are the most likely substitutes you’ll come across in the U.S.

Bietole Recipes

Wild Fennel | Finocchietto Selvatico


italian spring foods wild fennel
Image by Aldo Messina for Concierge in Umbria

While the fronds of cultivated fennel are often ignored in favor of the crisp, flavorful bulb, the situation is quite the reverse with wild fennel, prized for its greens.

Like dill, bits of fennel fronds can flavor pickles and other savory preserves, and like bietole, the greens make an excellent flavored addition to your pasta, upping nutrients while adding flavor.

Wild Fennel Recipes

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

When is the Best Time to Visit Italy?

best time to visit italy spring near Perugia
Spring at Terre Margaritelli vineyard near Perugia: © Concierge in Umbria

The first Monday of each month, we examine common questions our clients have about traveling to Italy. This month, we tackle a perennial stickler: when is the best time to visit Italy?

Each Italian season has its own charms. Summer brings music festivals and hiking in the Alps and Dolomites. Fall is for figs, foliage, and foraging for the elusive white truffle. And winter is time for skiing, Christmas holidays, and filling up on the hearty winter fare both require.

But we think spring is the best season of all.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Weather


best time to visit italy spring weater
Gull in Ischia: © Concierge in Umbria

In the summer, Italy is not only hot. In many places it is humid. And crowded. (Two conditions that definitely don’t help each other.) Thanks to its ample Mediterranean coastline, in much of Italy temperatures already creep into the 70s by April. Near the sea and in the tropical pocket around the Lake District, the weather is already nice enough for a bagno (dip in the water) in April or May.

2. Food


best time to visit italy fried artichokes
Fried artichokes: © Concierge in Umbria

Though every season has its own delicacies, spring is blessed with more than most. Delicate stalks of wild asparagus find their way into subtle risottos and spring pasta “alla carbonara”. Fava beans, a snack that is the sign of warmer times on their way, are eaten on their own or sautéed as a side or base for soup or pasta. Edible fresh flowers garnish dishes while their non-edible cousins adorn the table and the yard.

3. Experiences


best time to visit italy Easter lunch
Easter lunch: © Concierge in Umbria

One of the best spring experiences is actually food related. Foraging has remained an everyday practice in Italy, and spring is the best time to uncover nature's hidden treasures. But spring in Italy offers many other reasons to get outside. Many towns schedule their Palio in May, such as our favorite, the 900-year-old Festa dei Ceri (Festival of the Candles) in Gubbio. And if you can time your trip for Easter, Holy Week, and the Monday national holiday Pasquetta, you'll see a whole new side of Italian culture.

Spring is the ideal time to get out of Italy’s storied cities and experience the delights of its countryside and smaller towns. If you’re looking for ideas for your own spring Italian vacation, we’re happy to help.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

In Season: 5 Flavors of Italian Winter Soup

italian winter snow in florence
Image: © Concierge in Umbria - Elvira Politi

When you sit down to a meal in Italy, you may start with an antipasto like some sliced meat and cheese, or some seasoned olives and a glass of wine. But the primo - the course that simply goes by the Italian word for “first” - is where things get going.

Pasta may be the stereotypical (and most popular) primo, but in winter, Italians turn to soup. Warm, hearty, and filling, soups help combat the malaise of short winter days, perking you up after a long, cold day.

And while soup is a winter constant, every region, province, and town has its own favorites and small variations. In soup season, you’ll find these Italian favorites in one form or another all over the boot:

Ribollita


italian winter soup tuscan ribollita
Image by Flickr user Tuscanycious

Most associated with Tuscany, ribollita (Italian for reboiled) is an old peasant dish based on minestra or minestrone, vegetable soup. In winter, Italian wives used to cook up a big pot of vegetable soup and serve it three different ways over the days, first as vegetable soup, then soup over toasted bread, and finally a sort of vegetable porridge as the bread dissolved into the soup, thickening into the now characteristic ribollita.

Ribollita Recipes

Jota


italian winter soup jota
Image by Flickr user ilovebutter

Found throughout Italy’s northern regions, jota features ingredients that may seem out of place in a traditional Italian dish: sauerkraut and poppy seeds. A tasty and surprising relic of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s long hold on northern Italy, jota is a staple in Trieste, but you’ll find various versions throughout Fruili and across the border in Slovenia. Wherever you find it, jota always features a hearty base of potatoes, beans, and smoked pork.

Jota Soup Recipes

Tortellini in Brodo


italian winter soup tortellini in brodo
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Fresh Italian tortellini are a heady concoction of diverse meats, (beef, veal, and/or pork) cuts, and cures (in Bologna, they add prosciutto and mortadella). Every mama has her recipe. And it’s typically a highly guarded secret. While tortellini in brodo is a staple dish throughout Emilia-Romagna, in Bologna, the top tortellini shops charge up to $20 per pound. A simple but soul-warming broth with a healthy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is the best complement for fresh tortellini. It's the soup to serve on Christmas.

Tortellini in Brodo Recipes

Pasta e fagioli



Image by Flickr user Arnold Inuyaki


Pasta e fagioli transcends the two main ingredients from which it draws its name – pasta and beans – into the pinnacle of Italian vegetarian (a.k.a. peasant) cuisine. In the U.S., it’s commonly known by its Anglo-Neapolitan name pasta fazool, as popularized by Dean Martin in his hit song “That’s Amore.” But like its many names, you’ll find endless variations. Cannellini beans here, borlotti (or cranberry) beans there. Curvaceous macaroni or miniscule ditalini. (Though in our house, we like to use leftover scraps from making fresh pasta). N.B.: As many people today add pancetta, be sure to clarify the ingredients if you’re vegetarian.

Pasta e Fagioli Recipes

Lentil Soup


italian winter soup lentil soup
Image: © Concierge in Umbria
Lentils have been a human staple for over 10,000 years, finding their way into iconic soups around the world from spicy Indian dal to the buttery, oregano-finished Turkish mercimek corbasi. The Italian version remains as simple as its name, zuppa di lenticchie, but the taste depends on the lentils you use. Umbrian lentils in particular are famous, especially those from Castelluccio di Norcia. High in protein and lightly seasoned with a soffrito base, bay leaves, and rosemary, Italian lentil soup is the ultimate comfort food – especially when paired with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a side of toasted bread.

Lentil Soup Recipes

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Fresh Pressed Olive Oil

olive grove
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

When a bottle arrives at your dinner table filled with a deep green, cloudy, viscous liquid with a piquant, zesty, grassy, spritzy, peppery aroma . . .

That’s not your everyday olive oil.

It’s fresh-pressed olive oil. And this is its season.

You can use olive oil right after it’s pressed (typically October-December). But the flavor reaches its peak two or three months after pressing, making January the olive oil season.

Fresh-pressed vs. Extra Virgin: What’s the Difference?


freshly picked olives
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Olive oil is at its tastiest and most healthy when it’s young. Both the flavor and nutrients begin to fade after six months and fall flat two years after pressing.

Fresh-pressed olive oil or olio novello is oil less than six months old – the sweet spot. Typically unfiltered, it’s extremely high in polyphenols, a group of antioxidants that are believed to protect cells and prevent diseases such as cancer.

Any type of olive or pressing can be olio novello. It’s not a qualitative designation like extra-virgin, which refers to low acidity oil produced purely through mechanical extraction like stone oil mills (as opposed to chemical extraction, which produces refined oil). While producers will label their new oil olio novello, the only way to tell that it’s still fresh when you get your hands on it is to check the harvest date printed on the bottom. All Italian oils should have a harvest or best by date listed.

Even though all fresh-pressed oils share certain characteristics that differentiate them from older oils, there’s a huge variation in flavor. Some are bold and assertive, others nuanced and delicate.

Using and Storing Fresh-pressed Olive Oil


spaghetti with tomato basil olive oil
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Fresh-pressed olive oil is not for cooking. Heat breaks down its polyphenols, causing it to lose not only flavor, but also health benefits. Ambient heat and light can have the same effects, so only buy olive oil that is bottled in dark glass bottles and kept in a cool place away from direct sunlight.

When you bring your oil home, also keep it somewhere dark and cool, though not necessarily as cold as the refrigerator. By all means, don’t keep it in a clear glass bottle by your stove or on your table any longer than necessary for cooking and serving.

A drizzle on top of soup, a hearty dose over carpaccio, salad, or pasta, or the perfect bruschetta flavoring, fresh-pressed olive oil should be enjoyed as a topping or finishing agent.

Here are some great uses for fresh-pressed olive oil from our Italy del Giorno blog:

goat cheese
truffle oil
cannelloni bean salad
lentil soup
(read more about lentil and other winter soups in this week’s In Season column)

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

A Tuscan Cooking Class with a Noble Twist: Cooking with the Contini Bonacossis

Anybody can sign up for a cooking class in Tuscany. But how about learning to cook with the private chef of a count and countess and then sitting down to lunch with the whole family . . . eating the food you just made?

The Contini Bonacossi Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In Tuscany, and especially Florence, the Contini Bonacossis are best known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) – friend of Simon Guggenheim and a Senator to the Kingdom of Italy – amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Now housed in the Uffizi, the collection was donated to the state in 1969.

Today's generation of Contini Bonacossis are best know for their food and wine. The family is one of the top producers of Carmignano wine, a wine that dates back 3000 years and in the 14th-century was one of the most valuable commodities in Europe. Carmignano is produced by only 13 estates, and when you visit you’ll see the family’s dedication to keeping this craft alive.

Arriving at the Contini Bonacossi Estate


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In the morning, depart from your hotel and climb the leisurely hills outside Florence with your driver. The Contini Bonacossi estate lies a half hour outside Florence in Tenuta di Capezzana.

On the sprawling grounds – you’ll get an excellent view from the hilltop villa – the family maintains large orchards of grapes, olives and lemons, which are raised in terraces called limonaie that transform into greenhouses in the winter.

After driving through the vineyard to reach the house, you’ll dive into your cooking lesson with the family chef Patrizio, who has been with the family for more than twenty years.

Cooking Ancient Tuscan Food


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi founded this cooking school in the 1980s to share traditional Tuscan cuisine based on ancient recipes with her guests, so you're in for a treat beyond the usual Tuscan dining experience.

Though they may include some of today's typical Tuscan menu items, such as ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and bistecca alla fiorentina, Patrizio also teaches particular regional dishes like stracotto alla Carmingnano (Carmignano-style pot roast) and baccala alla livornese (Livorno-style cod) and dishes based on local ingredients, such as penne ai tre cavoli (with three cabbages) or crostini di cavolo nero (with black cabbage).

At the end of your course, the Contini Bonacossis will also give you a bottle of wine or olive oil so you can recreate your meal at home.

Eating with the Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Dust the flour off your clothes, wash your hands, and sit down for lunch with the count, countess, and their whole family. Naturally, the contessa will don her pearls, but the family is quite laid-back, so you’ll do just fine.

After your meal, one of your hosts will escort you around the estate, including the wine cellars where they age their famous DOCG (the highest quality designation available for Italian wine) Carmignano wine. Once you’ve had your fill of the noble surroundings, your driver will cruise you back through the rolling hills into town.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy