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  • Writer's pictureDeb

Serious Sips and Eats: Around Italy in 20 Days with Deb and Mike

I’ve been to Italy six times – most recently leading a group of 19 customers on a 20-day food and wine tour through Venice, the Dolomites, the Amalfi Coast, and Sicily – and each time, I find something new to appreciate.

A student in one of our classes said she was just in Paris and surprised by how serious food is taken there – laws for how many ingredients can be in a baguette, what grapes can be grown and where, etc. Italy has similar rules, along with unique regional diversity and an almost sacred regard for growing, preparing, and serving quality food and drink. The stark contrast with how we regard food in the U.S. is most apparent when driving in other countries. In Italy, you can stop at little roadside stands and get really good sandwiches, not fast food in greasy wrappers, even if you’re struggling to read the road signs!

Germany? No. Northern Italy

On our recent trip and my first to this particular area, we traveled from Venice to Alto Adige where the scenery, food and culture seemed more similar to Germany. The Dolomites were just spectacular! The food was homey and robust. Cured meats, potatoes, soups, risotto (so much risotto!) The wines were crisp and mineral to counter some of the filling food. A couple of our favorites were a beet ravioli with horseradish sauce and a beet tartar paired with Lagrein, Kerner, Pinot Noir, Moscato Giallo and Chardonnay.

Cheese, cheese, I mean CHEESE! Places that specialized in aging cheese, places that made cheese, and places where we could just eat cheese. So many varieties to talk about, I don’t even know where to start. Bundles with herbs, wine-soaked, black pepper-crusted, on and on.

I was happy to see they often served white wine alongside the never-ending wheels of formaggi. Mike and I learned long ago that white wine is really the way to go when eating cheese. We had a Sylvaner and a Tokaji Aszu (5 Puttonyos) during one tasting. Love it when someone serves a Tokaji Aszu!

While we were in Bolzano, I discovered an interesting phenomenon - all the kitchen stores not only sell the customary pots, pans and knives, but every one also had stills for sale. Glass ones, copper ones, and all sizes for home use. Who doesn’t love a kitchen store that helps you spend your nights distilling?

A stop at Alois Lageder Winery gave us an up-close look at a biodynamic winery and the importance, indeed almost reverence, placed on nurturing a balanced, natural environment. There was even a garden where the pumpkins seemed to dangle from the sky above us. Mike has some work to do at home!

The experience of being at a winery makes concepts like biodynamic production more real to me. The personal tour and guide’s explanation was superb and being able to see the two vineyards side by side (one bio and one traditional) was eye-opening. Seeing the trellising for prosecco vines also hit home as I was reading about this at the same time. Somehow seeing it in the field is different than seeing a picture.

Sunshine and Lemons in Amalfi

Before long, we slipped down to the sun and limoncello-soaked Amalfi coast for some cooking lessons.

The highlights here are all about pasta and water and lemons. I’ve heard about using a little pasta water in sauces when finishing a pasta dish, but these folks really use pasta water! Cook your pasta halfway. Put in what you’re making the sauce out of and add pasta water. Lots of pasta water, so you finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, and then the starch helps thicken it. I’ll never cook pasta the same way again! And, did you know you can hold some pasta water in the fridge for a week so you can use it for other things?

Rolling gnocchi turned out to be easier than I thought. I never made them before because I had aunts who made amazing gnocchi, so why would I even try? We also worked with lemon leaves big enough to use as little trays for mozzarella appetizers. So simple, but so good. Later in the trip we had mussels wrapped in lemon leaves!

I found the cooking sessions very insightful because once again, it was easy to see the value the Italians place on the food itself and the care with which they take to prepare and serve it. Another significant difference with food here in the U.S. is that we aren’t bound by regional segmentation like they are in Europe. Risotto every day in northern Italy because that is what they eat there. Tortellini in Bologna, etc. In most U.S. cities, we can eat Chinese, Thai, Polish, Italian, French and other foods almost any time. In Italy, you really need to go to a major city to get even a tiny international selection. I love Italy, but that is one of the reasons I couldn’t live there.

Friendships formed in Sicily

On the last delicious course of the tour, it was south to Sicily we went. We started in Taormina, one of my favorite cities, where the glint of the sun shining off the water is amazing, the food is fantastic, and the steep hills to walk up and down keep you in shape. There is history to absorb, shopping to do, and the Bar Turrisi, ahem, to experience. (Google it at home if you don’t already know.)

Our tour of Sicily took us 6,000 meters up Mount Etna with our knowledgeable Italian guide Gabriele, who happens to teach other guides about geology, hiking and all things nature. Feeling the lava stone under our feet was amazing. Back down the mountain, our reward was more food and wine. Fresh fish, shellfish, sardines, anchovies, flat fish, you name it.

Traveling with the local guides is always a pleasant surprise, and over the years, we have made friends and stayed connected with many. They have such a great perspective on where we are at the moment, and they give us insider tips on where to go next and how to make it special. Group members have been known to meet up with our tour guides years later.

Sicily also means vegetables - eggplant stuffed, grilled, made into lasagna. Lucky for us, we were there while the zucchini blossoms were available, so we had lots of stuffed, fried blossoms. Wait! I’ve forgotten to mention the pastries! Pastry shops with chandeliers…that about says it all. And pistachios and chestnuts. Did I mention the pastries with pistachios?

We saw and experienced so much in 20 days, and yet, there is always more to see and do. Next year, we might just hop back over to Lake Garda for my birthday. There is a delightful little seaside restaurant there that I just love.

We invite you to join us for an upcoming class or consider taking a trip with us next year!

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