Postcards from Italy
THE BLOG OF CIU TRAVEL

Staff Inspiration: Linda's Dream Trip

Last week, we capped off our series of dream trips through Italy and Switzerland to inform and inspire future jaunts to Europe with Maria Gabriella’s trip with her sister...or so we thought. We realized that we had one more dream trip in the bullpen from Linda, longtime CIU Travel administrative assistant and...Brian’s mom!

KIF_1721(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Brian’s parents, Linda and Mike, both took up skiing when they were in their late 30s, and are still happily hitting the slopes today in their late 70s. They're avid skiers - they have slowed down a bit in recent years, however - and though skilled, are cautious to avoid injuries from falls. Linda had knee surgery to treat an injury from a ski fall more than 25 years ago; the first orthopedist she consulted told her that they didn't operate on people over 50! Luckily, she got a second opinion and was back skiing a couple of years later.

They are advanced intermediate skiers, so the runs straddling the Italian/Swiss border offer endless options at their level. Though they have visited all the destinations on this itinerary in the past, they are keen to return and take them on again at a leisurely pace that includes a bit of sightseeing, some days on the slopes, and a heavy dose of pampering to recharge. This trip may not just be a dream. Mike turns 80 in February of 2021 and vows to spend the day on the slopes so maybe this jaunt from Venice to Zürich via the Dolomites and St. Moritz will become a reality!

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Il Mercato Centrale: The Pros and Cons of Gourmet Food Courts in Florence and Rome

Florence and Rome have both made news over the past couple of years with high-profile inaugurations of an updated (Florence) or new (Rome) Mercato Centrale. Florence expanded its historic central market in 2014, adding an enormous 3,000 square meter upper level with a gourmet food court including over a dozen stands, food and wine shops, a bookstore, and a cooking school and exhibition space. Rome expanded the Mercato Centrale brand in 2016, opening up its own gourmet food court in Termini's historic railway workers' social club space, featuring stands by some the most recognized names in the city's restaurant and food scene.

mercato-cr-winke(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Unlike Eataly, which showcases products from across the country, the Mercato Centrale philosophy highlights products, eateries, and shops from the city and surrounding region. Though there are exceptions - there is a small vendor offering Sicilian pastries at both locations - the food stands generally feature either prepared dishes or products like cheeses, charcuterie, and baked goods that are strictly local.

Both the Florence and Rome locations have ardent fans and passionate detractors, and only after a visit and tasting can you decide what side of the fence you are on. Here are a few pros and and cons of Italy's unique take on the food court:

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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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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…

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…

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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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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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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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…

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…

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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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…

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…

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