Culinary Travel: A Taste of Italy

Restaurant-goers in Venice have lunch outdoors with views of canal boats cruising under the Rialto Bridge.

In survey after survey, marketing firms, tour operators and consortia name Italy as the most or second-most popular destination of choice for Europe-bound American travelers. The country’s multifaceted appeal is certainly a draw. History buffs, art lovers, architecture aficionados, fashionistas and — perhaps most notably — foodies will find plenty of experiences to fill their vacation days.

Spotlight on Food and Wine

MMGY Global’s 2016 Portrait of American Travelers shows a slight rise in “culinary/wine tasting” as a “primary purpose of at least one vacation during the past 12 months,” with Millennials and Gen Xers registering a far greater interest in this aspect than their older counterparts. And at least one tour operator has noted a dramatic rise in culinary-inspired bookings.

A recent report release by Eurobound, based on the company’s internal booking data, indicates that food and wine experiences are expected to surpass art and culture in 2017 as areas of interest for luxury travelers to Europe. It comes as no surprise then that the report also shows that Italy, historically a magnet for foodies and oenophiles, is the operator’s top-selling destination. Eurobound’s offerings from its newly expanded Epicurean Collection include a 10-day “Italy: Wine & Villas Tuscany and Umbria” itinerary, which incorporates winery and wine museum visits, wine tastings, cheese and other food samplings, select lunches and dinners in typical restaurants and trattorias and a farewell dinner, as well as visits to historic castles and monasteries, and other sightseeing excursions.

Sicily Food & Wine,” a new food-focused program from Avanti Destinations, is an eight-day trip through Palermo, Menfi, Noto and Mt. Etna. Travelers will have access to a food and wine expert tour guide, driver and minicoach, seven dinners with wine, street food tasting, one cooking class, cheese and chocolate tasting, one buffet with cocktails, two wine tastings with lunch, one wine tasting with local product tastings and entrance fees to four major sights. Avanti also recently launched its new six-day / five-night “Puglia Food & Wine” tour through Bari, Ostia, Alberobello, Matera, Lecce, Maruggio, Masseria and Fasano.

Also rolling out a new food-focused program is Tuscookany, which specializes in cooking vacations through Tuscany. Founded 19 years ago by Lars Korn and Pippa Ward-Smith, the company creates predesigned itineraries allowing for sightseeing throughout the region, along with afternoon cooking classes and excursions to local producers of cheese, wine and olive oil. Tuscookany has multiple properties, with luxury villas in Casa Ombuto and Val d’Orcia, and one near Arezzo.

For those on a tight schedule and traveling through  or near the city of Florence, Tuscookany recently introduced its new One Day Italian Cooking Lessons at Casa Ombuto. Culinary travelers with more time to spend in the region can also book Tuscookany’s “One Week Italian Program,” which offers a full-day culinary excursion to a cheese farm, an olive oil farm for a tasting, shopping in either Anghiari, Arezzo or Montalcino and a wine tasting, along with multiple four-course Italian dinner classes.

Environmentally conscious travelers should also note that Tuscookany’s properties have organic vegetable gardens and use in-season produce from its own gardens for classes, as well as from local farmers. There are also solar panels for heating the villas and pools and the company composts all garden, kitchen and wood debris, along with practicing several other sustainable measures.

Eating Europe Tours’ new experiences include the “Historic Rome Sunday Tour” trip, which takes place in the Jewish Ghetto, a 10-minute walk from sights such Piazza Navona and Piazza Venezia. Guests will visit a historic Jewish pastry shop, taste authentic Roman-style pizza and sample local craft beers and gelato. The three-hour program departs every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

There is also the “Vatican Food & Drink Tour” for travelers on a tight schedule who want to experience some local gems during their visit. The tour travels through the Prati neighborhood, just next to the Vatican and a five-minute walk from the Ottaviano metro station, along small backstreets to discover a mix of traditional Roman classics and some of the city’s newest food trends like Trapizzino (pockets of freshly baked bread filled with classic dishes of Roman home cooking) and Italian craft beer. Included are seven food tastings and an English-speaking guide, and guests will also receive a Food Lovers’ Guide to Rome, full of insider’s tips about where to eat in the Italian capital.

Culinary travelers who may be looking for a slower paced or more romantic experience can book Eating Europe’s new “Rome Wine & Food Stroll.” Led by Marco Lori, a master sommelier, guests will tour the ancient backstreets of Rome through two of its oldest neighborhoods, sample wine-infused gelato and learn techniques for pairing wine and food. The 2.5-hour tour runs every Tuesday and Friday.

Eating Italy’s menu of walking tours includes a culinary stroll through the backstreets of Venice to discover a side to the city that most tourists don’t get to experience. Visitors to Florence can join its food tour in Oltrarno to see how cantucci (regional cookies) are made and taste local cheeses, and in Rome, guests can take daytime or evening tours through the neighborhoods where locals have been eating for centuries.

Truffles, Wine and Chocolate

Langhe-Roero is among the territories in the northern Italy region of Piemonte where your clients can experience rolling hills covered by vineyards, hazelnut groves, locally sourced food and wine, small villages, historic castles and towers, and, of course, food events. Tourists coming to Langhe are mainly interested in food and wine, but, in order to expand its touristic appeal, the region has introduced biking, hiking and trekking in the vineyards, Nordic walking and golf. Truffles and other culinary aspects remain front and center, however.

Truffles are ingrained in the regional culture; local people know about them and every restaurant has truffles on the menu. Visitors can even search for them in nature with a truffle hunter, listen to truffle seminars and take sensory analysis with truffle tastings. It is here that the annual International White Truffle Fair of Alba is organized in the fall — October 8 to November 27 this year. Alba is just over an hour’s train ride from Torino (Turin), Piedmont’s capital city.

For “dessert,” Torino hosts the late-November Chocolate Festival. Go Ahead offers a 12-day “Food & Wine: Turin Chocolate Festival & Northern Italy” tour, November 25 to December 6 (and November 24 to December 5, 2018), with an optional two-day extension to Venice. Chocolate tasting in Torino, truffle hunting in Langhe and wine sampling in Barolo, Franciacorta and Valpolicella are part of Eurobound’s nine-day “Truffle and Cheese Tour in Italy.

For tourists, wine-related activities in Langhe-Roero are fairly new, but the area has four regional enotecas (wineries) located in castles and other charming locales. In all, there are 400 wine producers that your clients can visit. A free booking service of tours and tastings is provided online by Piemonte On Wine and at the Wine Corner inside the tourist office in Alba.