Joyce Falcone

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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:


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Now that the summer travel season is in full swing, we’ve been talking a lot about souvenirs you can bring home from Italy:

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.
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relais po italian luxury hotel
Image © Italian Concierge

"Follow me."

Two simple words can lead to a fantastic adventure.

Maybe a restaurant recommendation leads to the best meal of your life. A stranger's pointing down the road brings you to small village that you dream of retiring to. Or even a suggestion of visiting a simple hidden courtyard provides much needed respite and rejuvenation on a hot day of too much sight-seeing.

It is a uniquely and wonderfully Italian trait to accompany you wherever you go. Even a shopkeeper you ask for directions to the train station will walk outside and down the corner to make sure that you see which street across the plaza you need to take.

This charming facet of Italian life is found all over, but more prevalent the warmer the weather gets. So this summer, ignore your mother's advice to never go with strangers, and let those simple words guide you to discovery.

Follow me for our favorite picks from around Italy in the July newsletter.

Here's what else you missed:

  • Tis the Season for . . . Estati!
    You'd think the l'estate (Italian for "summer") was festive enough already, but most Italian regional capitals take things even further with the official estates, an entire summer of outdoor concerts, films, performances, and festivals

  • Events this Month: FDA Lifts Imported Cured Meat Ban
    Culatello, coppa, salame fellino - a variety of previously unimportable meats are now ostensibly allowed into the U.S., but enforcement of the new regulations is very unclear.

  • Traveler Tip: Bringing Home Meat and Cheese
    Customs and Border Patrol has coined the phrase "when in doubt, keep it out," further scaring consumers from these items home from abroad. So how do you know what to bring?

  • Things We Love: Pecorino di Pienza
    Though always aged in oak barrels for at least 90 days, this sheeps milk pecorino from Pienza comes in many varieties. Read about my favorite.

  • July Recipe: Apricot Crostata
    Easy to store, cut, and finish in one go, crostatas combine one of the most important parts of an Italian meal - presentation - with one of Italians' favorite ways to end a meal: fruit!

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Culatello, salami, prosciutto, oh my!

For meat and dairy lovers, Italy can come pretty close to heaven, especially if you go straight to the source and sample Italy's fine cured meats and aged cheese on the farms where they're made.

But if you're looking to recreate your experience at home, here are my picks for the best meats and cheese to bring back with you, with a few tips on how to do it.

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In honor of the beginning of warm weather and the Florence Gelato Festival, celebrated in one of the origins of the beloved treat now enjoyed worldwide, this month we’re taking a look at Italian gelato.

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