Image © Italian Concierge
Travel + Leisure’s announced this week that Italian Concierge has made the Travel + Leisure A-List for the fifth year in a row (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and now 2013).
Travel+Leisure had some questions for me about my experiences in Italy that I wanted to share with you here.
Over years I've led tours and worked as a travel specialist, I've logged approximately 12,000 hours in Italy planning and leading groups. In the last year alone, I've visited Rome, Florence, Venice, the Dolomites, Puglia, Emilia Romagna, Toscana, and Piemonte.
I do not consider myself a travel agent. My desire is only to see and experience everything in Italy. I could not answer one travel question about another country. My goal is to know Italy inside and out from every perspective, be it on foot, train, car, bike, skis, or boat.
The four most important milestone of my time in Italy have been:
Image © Italian Concierge
In Spain, you can get tapas anywhere, but the south is where the movement began and continues today in top form.
Italian aperitivos are similar.
Every city has its bar with small plates of food on the countertop at happy hour, but Venetian cicchetti (often called Venetian tapas or small places) are singular.
Many locals consider the Venetian cicchetti crawl, or giro di ombre (stroll of shades—a local term for small glasses of wine), the last hold out of Venetian cuisine in a city flooded with twice as many tourists as residents each day.
Image © Italian Concierge
This month, Italians celebrate the biggest holiday of the year: Ferragosto. Literally meaning "august vacation," the August 15 holiday coincides with the Feast of the Assumption, celebrating the Virgin Mary's ascension into heaven, but the religious celebration has taken a backseat to the beach in modern times.
In August, businesses shut down, Italians head to their vacation homes on the coast, and cities empty eerily of residents. You can have Italy's greatest cities to yourself for a "golden day" like the day trip I recently wrote about for Susan van Allen's "Golden Days in Italy" blog.
If you're stuck at home, follow the Italian summer on our Pinterest board or through our summer-focused August newsletter:
- Tis the Season for . . . the Mare!
To Italians, summer is practically synonymous with the seaside. Many beaches in Italy - usually the sandier, better looking ones - are private beaches or called bagni or stabilamenti. Here's how to navigate them.
- Events this Month: Aman Resort Opens in Venice
In a 16th-century palazzo in the San Polo quarter, near the Rialto Bridge, the new hotel is composed only of spacious suites with garden or canal views.
- Traveler Tip: Italian Gestures
When I saw a wonderfully tongue-in-check short documentary on Italian hand gestures in the New York Times last month, I couldn't help but smile. Our quick guide will help you learn these gestures at home.
- Things We Love: In Piazza della Signoria B&B
Sometimes my favorite things are as simple and stunning as the view from a hotel room window. This luxurious boutique hotel lies right on the corner of Florence's Piazza Signoria, where nearly a century of Florentines have gathered to party, protest, and parade.
- August Recipe: Panzanella
Tomato, basil, and old bread -- the most basic ingredients find a surprisingly new life in this summer Tuscan peasant dish.
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Image © Italian Concierge
After a meal in Italy, you may be offered the ubiquitous grappa or limoncello as a digestif. And if you eat Italian at in the U.S., you may find a dessert wine like Moscato on the menu. But like most things in Italy, the best treasures are local specialties.
I’m particularly fond of ending my meal with dessert wines called vini di meditazione, literally meditation wine, often called “a sweet wine for pensive moments.” Its the perfect way to contemplate the flavors of your meal, the meandering threads of long Italian post-dinner conversation, and your gorgeous surroundings.
Made for sipping slowly, these wines aren’t just sweet, they burst with aromas both strong and varied, due to their production from grapes that remain on the vine longer than most and a prolonged aging period.
One of the best things about these wines is that though they are typically saved for after the meal they pair with everything. Offer them with cheese instead of an aperitivo or prosecco. Or try them with spicy food, as they hold up excellently against strong spices and piquant flavors.
Since these wines can be extremely difficult to find in the U.S., they are definitely worth bringing home.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Passito from Pantelleria
The Passito from Pantelleria, with a nearly 3000-year history dating back to an ancient grape from Carthage, is one of the most famous vini di meditazione. Intense aromas of apricot and peach along with a thick fig taste make it the perfect pairing for the local fruits in Sicily, where the wine is produced.
- Schiaccetra from the Cinque Terre
When you hike the sentieri (mountain trekking routes) in the Cinque Terre and spy row after row of grape vines precariously ordered along the steep clips, you understand why Schiaccetra is so precious. Like many Italian dessert wines (passiti), Schiaccetra is made from raisinated grapes. The Schiaccetra from Buranco in Monterosso was served when the G8 summit was held in Italy in 2011.
- Malvasia from Lipari
Malvasia is a versatile grape cultivated all around the Mediterranean and fermented on its own or with other grapes, sometimes into the Tuscan Vin Santo. But the variety from Lipari, a Aeolian Island off of Sicily, is one of the most distinct, with an eerie orange flavor and incredible richness due to the volcanic soil in which it is produced.
- Sagrantino Passito from Montefalco, Umbria
For decades, the deep, inky purple Sagrantino grape was only used to make this passito, but in recent years the dry Sagrantino has become one of the most sought after Italian red wines. Unlike other passiti, the Sagrantino passito is a dark wine, with a thick syrupy look like blueberry pancake syrup.
- Ramandolo from Friuli Venezia Giulia
This unusual vino di meditazione is not nearly as sweet as its counterparts and has a color that verges more towards copper than the usually golden hue. Made from the northern Verduzzo grape, Ramandolo is reminiscent of an Austrian dessert wine due to the northern clime in which it grows.
Read more about my favorite Italian souvenirs in this month’s Little Black Book:
- June’s newsletter looked at how to transport wine and olive oil.
- Here on the blog, we looked at my favorite meats and cheese to bring home.
- And this month’s newsletter talks about how to bring home meat and cheese under the new FDA rules.
Now let’s look at those little accents you can keep around your kitchen that make all of those other special picks pop: gourmet goodies for your pantry.
Salt is so crucial to Italian cuisine, from salting pasta before it cooks to salting meat to cure it into delectable culatello and prosciutto to salting a perfect tomato to further heighten its flavor. My favorite finishing salt is the Sicilian salt from Trapani.
But you can add some Italian salted flair to your food in many forms, especially with capers. A key ingredient in many southern Italian pasta sauces, you can’t make an authentic puttanesca with them. I love the capers from Pantelleria (pick up some of their famous passito while you’re there) as well as those from Salina and Lipari.
Flavors of Earth and Sea
Whenever you get the chance, pick up some dried porcini mushrooms, one of the most earthy-tasting ingredients available. Excellent in risottos, they impart the elusive “umami” flavor. Just check the bag to make sure all your mushrooms are porcini; vendors often put a layer of porcinis on top with lesser mushrooms underneath. The caps (top portion) should be very large, four to six inches in diameter.
Another hard-to-find-at-home risotto ingredient to grab if you can is nero di sepia, or cuttlefish ink. Just keep in mind restrictions for packing liquids. But to get the essence of the sea in one small, compact, non-liquid package, look for bottarga, dried fish roe. It has quite a smell, so be careful how you pack it. Grating a touch into your pasta will transform any dish from average to that inexplicable perfection you find rampantly in Italian cuisine.
Captured Essence of Italian Sun
Tomatoes ripened on the vine, bursting with juice and a brilliant, almost blood red hue are one of the greatest joys of eating in Italy. Unfortunately, you can’t really take them home, but the next best thing, sun-dried tomatoes, concentrates that intoxicating flavor even further. My favorites are the sun-dried tomatoes from Pachino, Sicily.
And if you’re checking a bag and have a little space to spare, it’s a shame not to tuck a little (or a large) bottle of olive oil in there, packed securely with some clothes. You’ll never find such beautiful unfiltered olive oil at home without paying the equivalent of an entrée at a top-notch restaurant. The best is the EVOO from Mandranova, with medium fruit and subtle flours, made from Sicilian nocellera olives.