By Mark Buck, MD United Europe
Italy is incredible. The history, the culture, the scenery and of course, the food all combine to make this country one of the world’s favourite vacation destinations. Having travelled often to Italy and covered a good part of the country, I have seen the daily markets (never bought anything though as cooking in your hotel room tends to be frowned upon) and eaten in some fantastic locations, traditional restaurants and lottery style pavement counter shops. I am by no means an Italian, a chef or a foodie (in any order you choose – it still won’t change), but I have experienced Italian cuisine from a tourists perspective.
Food and drink is a central part of Italian culture. The stereotypes are generally true; everyone does have a grandmother or aunt who cooks the Sunday lunch from basic ingredients for an extended family, coffee is an important part of an Italians day and just have a look at how pedantic the locals are about mineral water.
Finding a restaurant that serves up a bad meal anywhere in Italy is pretty difficult. I am sure they exist, but if you are in the popular areas and not in the suburbs or off of the beaten track, you will generally have a meal that beats anything back home. Even a carafe of house wine in an average looking establishment will be of a good standard.
In my view, Venice, Rome and Milan generally offer up the most average meals in Italy. Pisa is a culinary mishap relative to other locations – which is odd, as it sits on the coast of what I would consider to be one of the three areas in the country that serve up the finest cuisine in the land -Tuscany. The other areas of culinary delight are Campania and Emilia-Romagna.
Statistics show us that most people tend to visit the main centres, Rome and Venice, to a lesser extent, Florence. When planning your holiday, and looking for ideas, or alternatives, consider these three regions, generally overlooked as primary destinations, Campania, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany will offer a cuisine experience that very few countries or regions in the world can achieve on a similar scale.
Campania is located south of Rome, Naples is just over an hour away on the high-speed trains. Sorrento is a further 50 minutes on the Circumvesuviana (local train). Naples is where pizza comes from. It’s worth eating pizza in Naples, in fact it’s more than worth it. Amongst other things, locals will tell you that they use only ripened tomatoes that have grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius, and it is these tomatoes that yield the unique tang to their cooking. Buffalo mozzarella is a mozzarella made from the milk of the domestic Italian water buffalo – It is a product traditionally produced in Campania. Sorrento is where Limoncello comes from. Limoncello is an aperitif, served chilled. As you can guess, it’s made form lemons that grow in the region as well, however it would be difficult not to find it along the entire coast line. If food is not your thing, Campania is where the Pompeii ruins are (and clearly Mt Vesuvius), the stunningly beautiful Amalfi coastline, the isle of Capri, and one of the few areas in the world where you can scuba dive on archaeological sites.
Emilia-Romagna is a culinary marvel, its located north of Rome, north of Tuscany in fact. Bologna is the main centre, it’s actually the location of several food based corporations, but there are specific places of equal food importance, such as Parma and Modena. In one word – pasta. This is the home of tortellini, lasagne, gramigna and tagliatelle. It’s also the region that is home to salami, prosciutto, pancetta, mortadella, balsamic vinegar and everyone’s favourite Italian accompaniment, parmesan cheese. If you cannot get past that food experience, you could also miss out on the romanesque and renaissance cities of Bologna, with its university that is the oldest in the world, Modena and Parma and of course this is the region that homes Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Pagani, De Tomaso and Ducati.
Tuscany has a simple approach to its cuisine, yet the best meals I ever had in Italy, were in Tuscany. Known for its meat, it is also a major wine and olive oil region of strong reputation. This is also a region where you can find white truffles. Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms and fresh fruit are the staple diet and bases of many dishes here, you can tell by that list why soups such as Minestrone originate form Tuscany. It’s most famous dish, and certainly not for the light hearted – you need to be hungry before ordering, is the Florentine Steak. It’s a high quality, large T-bone steak that is cooked over a fire, generally seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil. It would be amiss to not mention wine. This is the region that boasts Chianti and Montepulciano – worthwhile exploring the produce form these two areas. Again, if food isn’t your thing, the beauty of the countryside is mesmerising, the medieval villages like San Gimignano and the renaissance capital of Florence will yield excellent visits – the gelato isn’t bad either.
As a tourist, time is a factor that influences everyone’s vacation. A week in Italy or anywhere for that matter, is not going to connect you to the culinary heart of the country, but you can make sure you enjoy it. Travel safe.
Mark Buck is the Managing Director if United Europe (Pty) Ltd, a tour wholesaler based in South Africa