Italy is one of the world’s pre-eminent foodie destinations with a dazzling array of local offerings.
Objectivity isn’t a strong suit for Italians. Ask a local where to find the best food and wine, and they’ll invariably say their hometown. This is a nation that produces thousands of wines, second only to France in volume. It’s also a country that only achieved political unification in 1861, with the ingredients, dishes and techniques of each of its 20 modern-day regions heavily influenced by their previous occupiers.
“There’s no other country in the world — perhaps with the exception of China — where there’s such diversity and traditions based around food and wine,” says Alex Lavagnini, managing director of bespoke tour operator, Best Italian Vacations. “You can even see differences from village to village.”
According to Dejou Marano, co-founder of experiential travel company CountryBred, “Anyone who enjoys food and wine will enjoy a trip to Italy. You could visit a thousand times and still find a new gastronomic experience to suit your palate and interests.”
With so many epicurean encounters on offer, it’s hardly surprising US visitor numbers to Italy continue to grow apace. Italian Tourist Board figures show a 9% increase between January and November 2014 and the same period in 2015.
“There are certain areas that were already on travellers’ radar because of their landscape or architecture, but are now up-and-coming as gastronomic destinations,” says Andrea Barsotti, founder of specialist operator Kiss From Italy.
“Genoa, the capital of Liguria, is a good example. Apulia in southern Italy is another — it’s a great place to experience how [mozzarella-like] burrata is made, and has wonderful wines and olive oils. It’s definitely one to watch in 2016.”
Tuscany for Italy’s best-known wines
There’s no denying that picturesque Tuscany is a gourmand’s paradise, its bucolic splendor providing the perfect backdrop against which to sample regional delicacies ranging from hearty ribollita soup to delcious castagnaccio (hazelnut cake).
But it’s the Tuscan wines that are the real stars of the show. Despite being responsible for generating only 6% of Italy’s entire supply in 2014, Italy’s oldest wine region — located in the west-central part of the country — is also its most famous, with heavyweight producers such as Soldera and Tenuta dell’Ornellaia creating some of Italy’s most exclusive labels.
Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano are some of the key regions to visit, with guided or self-drive tours around the well-established wine routes proving one of the best ways for rookies and experienced oenophiles alike to learn more about the destination’s legendary product. And for the truly committed, it’s even possible to attend a short sommelier course at one of Tuscany’s top wine schools.
Sicily for snacks and sweets with a Middle Eastern twist
Arab rule between the 9th and 11th centuries has left an indelible, and undeniably delicious, mark on Italy’s largest island. Ingredients such as saffron, cloves, rice and chickpeas are regularly found in Sicilian cuisine, with one of the best ways to sample them being through a guided street food tour. Melt-in-the-mouth snacks such as arancini (stuffed rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritters) abound on these excursions, particularly in the capital, Palermo.
Yet its street food isn’t the only thing giving Sicily a gastronomic edge. Sweet-toothed vacationers will also find much to love, with favorite confections including almond granita (refreshing flavored ice) and cassata Siciliana, a decadent, liqueur-soaked sponge layered with ricotta cheese, chocolate cream and garnished with royal icing and Middle Eastern candied fruit.
For those who enjoy preparing dishes as much as consuming them, such delicacies can be mastered at one of Sicily’s many cookery classes, while those who prefer being less hands-on can enjoy the many tasting sessions on offer — ranging from Modicano organic chocolate to sweet or dry Marsala wine.
Campania for artisan pizza and limoncello
There are few foods we Americans love more than pizza; between us, we consume 350 slices every second. So it’s little wonder that the birthplace of this tasty tomato and mozzarella-topped flatbread should make our list of gastronomic Italian destinations.
Although widely available throughout the southern region of Campania, aficionados should head for Naples, the capital, if they want a truly authentic pizza experience. Whether to devour a slice at a landmark pizzeria or learn the art of tossing dough at a pizza workshop, there are options to entertain even the most ardent devotee. Meanwhile, visitors whose tastes stretch further than flatbread, won’t be disappointed by a trip down Campania’s shoreline. It’s not only their breathtaking vistas that the Sorrentine and Amalfi coast is known for; this is also the home of limoncello, the zesty lemon liqueur that rounds off most Southern Italian meals. For authentic experiences, consider a visit to an artisan factory, such as Agriturismo Buranco, where it’s possible to sample the goods while learning the fairly simple techniques for making it at home.
Emilia-Romagna for legendary produce
It’s not by chance that this charming north-central region is known as the breadbasket of Italy. Sandwiched between the tourist heartlands of Lombardy, Veneto and Tuscany, yet surprisingly absent from the pages of many travel brochures, Emilia-Romagna is the heartland of Italy’s most famous staples.
Prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar and the king of cheeses — Parmigiano-Reggiano — all hail from here, with production centered around the historic cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna. Travel between them is remarkably easy, with the furthest centers just 62 miles apart and the other two conveniently situated in a straight line between them.
Hence, it’s possible to enjoy a full quota of not-to-be-missed gastronomic encounters, including visits to ham-curing workshops, Parmesan-aging vaults and the region’s wine and balsamic vinegar vineyards, whose cellars typically offer the chance to sample different vintages. A cookery class in Emilia-Romagna’s celebrated fresh pasta is also a must.
Piedmont for wine-tasting and truffle-hunting
As the birthplace of the slow food movement, it’s little surprise that the north-western region of Piedmont has a proud culinary heritage. From its mountain cheeses to its fabulously nutty Gianduiotto chocolates, there is much here to appeal to the gourmand.
Of all the epicurean treasures on offer, perhaps the biggest draw is the elusive white truffle, which appears most famously in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti. Vacationers in search of this prized ingredient — so revered it has been dubbed “the diamond of the kitchen” — should visit during the fall, when they can try their hand at truffle-hunting as part of a mass of cultural events in Alba, which holds an annual festival in honor of the fungus.
This time of year is also good for witnessing the harvest of the Nebbiolo grapes from which Piedmont’s delectable Barolo wine is made. For those visiting during other seasons, there are countless vintners willing to open their cellars for tastings of the region’s other illustrious wines, key among which are tasty reds Barbera and Barbaresco.
Apulia for vegetarian and pescatarian gastronomic treats
Until recently, Apulia was best known for its vast swathes of coastline, the curious conical-roofed dry stone huts that dot its agricultural landscape, and the wall-to-wall baroque edifices that have led the town of Lecce to be nicknamed the “Florence of the South”. But the past few years have seen the emergence of this sun-drenched region, located at the heel of Italy, as a culinary destination in its own right.
Increasingly renowned for its artisanal olive oil, as well as the mass-produced versions that supply 40% of Italy, the region is also famed for its Pugliese bread, ear-shaped orecchiette pasta, and milky burrata, the making of which can be observed at specialist cheese farms.
However, it’s the abundance of fruit, vegetables and seafood that really take center-stage, with individual ingredients like octopus, cherries and artichokes celebrated
in their very own sagre (festivals). Dozens take place across Apulia throughout the year, so it’s nearly always possible to add a fiesta to any culinary itinerary.