Get Away To Italy: “Italian Food and Wine Tour”

Olive Garden is lying to you: there is no such thing as Italian cooking.

At least not as one unified entity. Instead, a culinary tour of Italy is a recapitulation of conquest. It is also a story of climate and culture, of what centuries of hard-working people have been able to coax from the sea and earth. Regional specialty is the soul of the Italian table: where the sun scorches the earth so warmly it seems to make out with it: flavors are simple, intense. Where cows can be more easily kept, creamy butter accents savory risottos and rich sweets. Where the climate enables orchard production, fruity olive oils grace almost everything.

And every conqueror in Europe, it seems, has wanted to stomp all over Italy. You can taste their footprints: in the southern regions—such as Sicily—Arabs and Greeks swept through leaving trails of honey, cinnamon, and nuts; the pastries in these regions are sweet and aromatic. And in northern regions, such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Austro-Hungarian influences give rise to hearty cabbage soups and delicate pastry confections. Wine is a case in point to this constant of variation: the quality of the soil, the amount of sunshine, and even the wood available to make barrels for aging influence Italian wine. With this strong emphasis on local variety, of course, there is only one responsible course of action for the culinarily curious: travel.

The experts have been there before you. Authorities on regional Italian cooking spend years exploring the country—sometimes even only one region—seeking out local specialties. And true sommeliers may dedicate their lives to canvassing wine country, developing the sensitivity of their palates, honing veritable flavor maps across continents and tongues. Chances are, you’re probably neither. And now that you’re ready to give up in despair, here’s a secret: with a little knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm, you can fake it.

First off, it helps to know that Italian wines can come classified in one of four EU-sanctioned categories. Table wines, which are considered of lower quality, consist of Vino da Tavola (VDT), which simply means that the wine is produced in Italy, and Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), which indicates that the wine was produced in a specific region and is generally considered of higher quality than simple VDTs. The second category, considered more prestigious, is “Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region,” or “QWPSR,” consisting of Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)—both labels indicating highly specific regional productions with a sharp eye to quality.

Now that you know a little bit about what to look for, it’s time for the fun part: eating. Your food and wine tour of Italy begins on a sunshiney morning in Piemonte with a little colazione—a Continental-style breakfast composed of a roll or—because you’re in the north—maybe some porridge, of course with caffè (espresso). Your day centers around seeking out a nice Barolo—a DOCG red considered by many to be one of Italy’s greatest. It’s a big wine, bold and tannic (translation: there’s a hint of bitterness, and it makes its presence known), and you venture into the countryside around Alba to find it. Your search for this beauty might take you to Bussia, to the vineyards of Aldo Conterno (Bussia 48, Monforte d'Alba. +39 0173 78150; www.poderialdoconterno.com), where what many consider the region’s best Barolo is produced. And after strolling through the lush vineyard, it’s time for some pranzo—the midday meal, often considered the most important of the day. Don’t be surprised if the whole town closes as you enjoy a bowl of risotto, gnocchi or polenta graced with Alba’s famous white truffles—and accompanied by, you can only hope, a glass of wine. You might have to take a nap after this—since nothing’s going to be open until about four anyway, this is not only acceptable but absolutely necessary. Or journey in the afternoon to nearby La Morra for a look around the vineyards of Enzo Boglietti, another top Barolo producer in the region (Via Roma 37, La Morra, Cuneo. +39 0173 50330; www.enzoboglietti.com).

If you’ve ever been struck by a case of acute Italophilia, you know where you’re going next. That’s right—Tuscany, the legendary land of about a thousand naked muscular guys (in paintings) and even more travel memoirs. From a home base in Florence or Siena, you art junkies can get your fix and have easy access to numerous regions of Chianti production, including Chianti Classico—perhaps the most famous Italian wine. Head to Felsina vineyards (Strada Chiantigiana 484, Castelnuovo Berardenga. +39 057 735 5117; www.felsina.it) for what many wine connoisseurs say is one mean Chianti; or check out Castello di Brolio (53013 Gaiole in Chianti, Siena; +39 0577 7301; www.ricasoli.it)—but don’t forget to have a caffe macchiato (espresso with hot milk) or simply a caffè (espresso) with your merenda, or mid-afternoon snack. Finish the day with a cena (dinner-generally eaten late and lighter than lunch) of Tuscan specialties: try a classic ravioli with fresh vegetables, olive oil, and some of the region’s famed saltless bread.  

Of course, not everyone can make like medieval conquerors and leave their own honeyed tracks across the sun-kissed tip of Italy—and even those who do can’t always be experts about it. If you the lack the funds or the inclination to travel and you just need to be able to feign knowledge about Italian wine so your friends will stop bothering you at cheese parties, try this simple Mad Libs-style guide: “This [region of Italy] [color/name] is [adverb] [adjective], with a [adjective] bouquet and [adjective] hints of [random flavor], [random flavor], and [random flavor].” (For example: “This Tuscan Chianti is delightfully tannic, with a flowery bouquet and enchanting hints of cherry, vanilla, and Vick’s Vaporub.”) Just don’t use this method around anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

And if the vocabulary’s stressing you, forget it. A no-fail strategy is to simply consume what they give you (“they” being the opinionated grandmother in the kitchen or the tanned vineyard owner) with grace and aplomb. Because in Italy, like in any culture that values the joys of the table, the ultimate concern is not how much you know about your food—it’s how passionately you eat it.

~ Reina Gattuso, Let's Go travel

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