“When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore,” sang crooner Dean Martin.
Nowhere do the lyrics ring truer than in northern Italy, the upper portion of the boot-shaped country where regional foods and wines stroll arm in arm with the surrounding terrain like eternally intertwined lovers.
In this locale, pleasures of the palate reflect their environs and indulging in an epicurean experience is much like falling in love.
So, with themed visits defining the latest travel trend, we set out not only to sample the country’s seductive sightseeing and shopping but also to eat and drink with purpose along our Italian journey — where local wisdom is that wines work well with foods that grow around them. Buon appetito.
Italy’s 20 regions did not unite as a single nation until the 1860s, explaining why many of the relatively young country’s customs, attitudes and dialects are distinctively local — as are its food and drink.
In Italy breakfast may be an on-the-go cappuccino and brioche, both consumed while standing at a pasticceria (pastry shop). But dinner and lunch (traditionally the biggest meal of the day) can be gourmet odysseys — typically consisting of several courses and wine, always wine.
The marathon experience begins with an antipasti (appetizers), followed by the primo (first course — soup, rice or pasta), then the secondo (main course — meat or fish) accompanied by a contorno (side dish), with a dolce (dessert) finale. The wrap up is caffe (coffee) and amaro (digestif liqueur).
Then there’s the liquid artistry — the wine. It is important to note that Martini & Rossi is so entrenched with Italy, should a martini be ordered, a glass of the celebrated producer’s wine is likely to be served. But with such local choices as Processo Frizzante (the country’s answer to the ubiquitous glass of white wine), Asti and Vermouth (Rosso, Bianco and Extra Dry), few complain.
Venice speaks to the hearts of dreamers, lovers and travelers. Narrow canals replace streets, arched bridges connect pathways leading to piazzas, water vessels provide transportation and in lieu of honking horns are the serenades of gondolieri.
With three main islands, 400 bridges and an equal number of gondolas, Venice’s connection to bygone times is unmistakable, but nowhere is it more evident than while cruising the Grand Canal.
Traveling beneath the Rialto Bridge past waterside palaces and churches en route to St. Mark’s Square, the best time to experience both the canal and piazza is late afternoon and beyond when the masses have departed, the waterways are calm and Venice belongs to its legitimate connoisseurs.
Just as the maize-like water bound city is known for its festive Carnevale, international film festival, Murano glass and Burano lace, visiting foodies savor its edible one-of-a-kinds: sarde in saor (sardines in a vinegar, onion and pine nut sauce), moscardini (tiny octopus) with polenta, spaghetti with cuttlefish ink and zaeti (biscuits prepared with polenta flour and raisins).
If dining Venetian-style is a goal, the perfect accessory to a meal is a glass of Prosecco di Conegliano or Bassano Grappa (a high octane after-dinner drink).
But for an insider’s slice of Venice, stop in Harry’s Bar for a Bellini. The tiny restaurant is so inclusive, it’s as if a secret has been discovered . . . one shared over the years by the likes of Proust, Hemingway and, more recently, Madonna.
Though only 40 miles in distance from Venice (its regional capital), the fertile region that is the home of Prosecco wine, its vineyards and valleys are uber-worlds from the fabled city’s frenzy.
In the mid-fifth century, this land was devastated by Attila the Hun. But the significant factoid to today’s food-and-drink crowd is that it is Italy’s third largest wine producing region.
Hallmarked by its gentle, fuzzy bubbles, Prosecco is the wine alternative to champagne. It is not casual coincidence that Strada del Prosecco (Italy’s first wine route) meanders through Veneto’s terraced hills, past uninterrupted vineyards and into tiny towns spotlighting a single piazza and sole church steeple.
The greatest pastime of Veneto’s visitors (and residents) is sampling the final product of the region’s age-old wine making traditions along with its foods — mushrooms, wild asparagus, snails, chestnuts, cold meats and cheeses. And if a visit is timed to wine harvest (typically early September and October), small pathways of the vineyards are dotted with locals handpicking Veneto’s “gold” and farmers’ grape-loaded trucks negotiating the roadways.
Follina is a village with ancient origins along the wine route. Built in the 12th century, Santa Maria Abbey seems at first the town’s focal point. But after brief investigation, La Corte restaurant at Hotel Villa Abbazia is the newer discovery. On its innovative menu might be Pig’s Waistcoat (salt cod tripe with octopus’ embrace) complimented by a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry Martini. And if she’s not personally in residence, book the Sandra Bullock Suite (Room 11).
As northern Italy’s economic heart and capital of designer duds, this city is a high-octane mix of features – Il Duomo (catherdral), Via Montenapoleone (address of such high-lux names as Armani, Ferragamo, Gucci, Valentino and Versace), La Scala (opera house) and more.
Restaurants are abundant, featuring such regional staples as Osso Bucco and Risotto alla Milanese (creamy Italian rice cooked with saffron and beef marrow). And eateries such as Al Boeucc, a legendary but typical Milanese restaurant dating from 1696, continue to enjoy reputations with the “eating elite.”
The beverage scene is equally extravagant. Though the Martini Bar at Dolce & Gabbana on Corso Venezia has the feel of a private club, it is not. But it is where window-shopping strollers order the same 40-euro Sigillo Blu Martini as the bar’s regulars — supermodels.
TURIN AND THE PIEDMONT REGION
Turin was little known as a tourist destination until it hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics. Set against a backdrop of alpine peaks, the Piedmont capital has long been associated with the Chapel of the Holy Shroud. But international coverage of the sporting event additionally highlighted the Euro-chic city’s 40 museums, 60 open-air markets, 16,000 shops and its gastronomic obsession.
The region is where the Slow Food Movement began — an organization that encourages the enjoyable consumption of good foods and wines (slowly, of course).
How apropos that Piedmont gave birth to hazelnut-chocolate confection (Nutella), produces the world’s richest white truffle crop and is renowned for its coffees and wines — from lighthearted white Asti to bold red Barbaresco and velvet-smooth Barolo.
While Moscato grapes are grown and handpicked for Asti wines (said to be best when paired with fruits, cheeses and desserts, especially wedding cakes), another Piedmont-originated beverage is vermouth.
The well-known aperitif (and ‘secret ingredient’ in many gourmet kitchens) that was once produced on a small family scale throughout the Piedmont region is now created in mammoth distilleries. But vermouth continues to be replicated according to age-old formulas that remain religiously guarded.
Piedmont additionally spoils the tastebuds with food specialties as lumache di bobbio (wine stewed snails), trifulin (ravioli stuffed with truffle specks and served in a mushroom sauce) and brasato al Barolo (beef in Barolo wine).
SAY “ARRIVEDERCI” TO AVERAGE
Echoing an earlier era, northern Italy is a showcase of multi-generational investments — lavish architecture, flawless foods and sophisticated socializing on a historic stage where places to swirl, sip and supper make any visit deliciously memorable.
For more information, visit the Italian Government Tourist Board at www.enit.it.
ITALY DOS AND DON’TS
Do make well-in-advance arrangements to see Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper at Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Do visit the Martini Wine Museum (a short distance from Turin to the town of Pessione). It is an interactive experience that traces the journey of the company founded in the 1800s by Alessandro Martini, Luigi Rossi and Teofilo Sola — from its beginnings to its current position as Piedmont’s largest wine exporter.
Do explore Venice’s waterways by gondola. Though admittedly touristy, seeing the sites from a vessel commanded by a black-and-white attired gondolier is not to be missed.
Do invest 40 minutes in a train ride from Milan to Lake Como and spend the day exploring the pristine lake’s waterside villages by ferry boat.
Don’t neglect to follow Turin shopping etiquette. Always ask permission prior to inspecting and handling garments.
Don’t violate the Italian dress code – best described “formal” compared to the American (particularly Southern Californian) standard. Translation: no shorts or tank tops. Doing so may mean refused admittance to churches, religious sites and most eateries (exception: the countryside where anything goes).
Don’t light up a cigarette or cigar in a restaurant or bar. Italy has one of Europe’s toughest laws against smoking in public places.
Grazie Thank you
Scusi Excuse me
Buon giorno Good day
Buona sera Good evening
Sei sposato? Are you married?
Quanto costa? How much does it cost?
Non capisco I don’t understand
Ci siarmo smarriti. Puo aiu tarmi? We’re lost. Can you help me?
Potrebbe ripetere, per favore? Could you repeat that, please?
Un caffe doppio, per favore. A double shot of coffee, please.
Dove il bagno? Where is the bathroom?