The ultimate Italian road trip
My girlfriend and I are traveling through Italy in early June and would love some seasoned eater and travelers advice.
A bit about us.
We travel very often, and would rather spend our money on a flight and an off the beaten path meal than a fine dining experience in our own town (SF and LA). We are active in the kitchen and love the slow food movement. We cure our own meat, roll our own pasta, brew beer, and I have built several brick ovens and computer controlled meat smokers. Needless to say, we not only love food, but love the process and the artisans who take pride in their craft.
Our upcoming trip is a quick one, but since we are both focused on the same thing, are hoping we can avoid tourist traps.
Unfortunately we don't speak Italian, but will have our iPhones ready with a dictionary.
Our current plan is to fly into Milan and make our way south. Our only requirement is to make it to Sicily for a few days and eventually back to Rome for our flight home.
So, with 9 days, what are the must do food lover experiences from Milan to Sicily.
We have read quite a few threads on each city (Florence, bologna, Rome, etc)....but were hoping for a higher level sense of how to plan our trip.
Is each city best seen on foot? We are happy to walk several miles a day. Are the artisans outside the city and we need a car? Is there amazing food to be had on the roadside in the country? If you could pick 3 best foodie cities, which would they be?
Our budget is flexible, but we get far more excited by a great rustic meal than a fine dining experience. Maybe even a few home meals? Also, recommended cooking classes are great too.
Sorry if this has so many questions, and our excitement is transparent. We probably should have made this a month long trip.
That's how we travel - all the time. We always select hotels in the suburbs of large cities - so to be near the locals - cheaper and have the best dining experiences. You can walk into any shop/market in Italy (anywhere) and pick up wonderful rustic rolls/breads, salami, cheeses, fruit, wine (a small personal size Chianti costs about $1 - they sell them like water bottles) and have a picnic - this is actually much better tasting than restaurants and you get to have the best views - because you can stop anywhere and select the view you want.
As I suggested in another post, traveling to Monticchiello (great views) then down strada 88 and then up to Pienza is absolutely breathtaking, beautiful and again, you can stop on the way and have your picnic
Why fly into Palermo? Why not Catania?
The foodie food places I've read about are Ragusa, Siracusa, Modica. Flying in and out of Catania is just as much a "thing" as getting in & out of Palermo. Both are small airports.
While I loved Cefalu, the eastern side of Sicily had a wilder feel. We had great meals in pretty much all the towns, but had our minds blown away with a chef in Siracusa. Driving across Sicily is a long ride. Consider focusing on the eastern seaboard.
And I definitely know a chef in Syracuse who would be lovely to work with.
I simply want to second the notion of buying "Osterie d'Italia". You don't need to read Italian to use it well. If you combine it with Fant's Dictionary of Italian Cuisine (or whatever it's called), you'll do well. I swear by the Osterie book. It's on the money 80% of the time.
I'll repeat what others have said... it's approx. 900 miles from Milan to Palermo and then another 700 or so to get you back to Rome. With 9 days (hopefully not including airport time, but definitely including either car rental or train schedule time), this is not a good idea. You'd be rushed even if you were a different type of person... one who just walks down the main street of a town and checks it off a list: "done that". As an appreciator of Slow Foods, you dont have a chance and might wind up wasting most of your vacation zipping down the roads/rails. If I were to come out to the West Coast from NYC and told you I had a week to do what you're doing and wanted to see everything from Seattle to the Redwoods to the Wine Country to SF to L.A., do you think you could create a productive itinerary for me?
My wife and I have done 2 week road trips in rental cars that have covered small sections of Italy. Each time, we marveled at how the time ran out before we hardly scratched the surface of the places we went. For example, if you're flying into Milan, Parma is very close by... easy ride. But arranging for anything other than a big bus tour of a big business cheese plant or ham producer will take you time and we found great family run small production places that were very willing to take us in and spend time with us but it took us an hour to get to each from our Parma hotel, 3 hours minimum to tour/talk/sample and then another hour to admire the surrounding scenery as we left. Even if you did these 2 productions (cheese and ham) back to back morning/afternoon of the same day, you're already in the evening of your 2nd day by the time you're done (& exhausted/overloaded with input). Head down to any olive oil producing area or over to any balsamic producer and the same time lapse will occur. Things take time & you clearly value the quality issues so give yourself time to not only tour but to then savor and eat a leisurely meal in the area that the production takes place.
All that being said (sorry if it sounded too much like a lecture... just want to get your attention), each area of Italy is quite unique and "best" should be determined by you after reading some info. about what each area specializes in. I, personally, was floored by the meats in Umbria (wild boar, etc) but this might be far out of the way for you. Using Eliz. Minchilli's guides to both Florence and Rome in conjunction with the great posts on this board from lots of folks living there (barberinibee, mbfant, Katie Parla, etc) & those who do reasonably regular visits & know their stuff (Jen Kalb, erica, etc), we've eaten very well in and around the major cities. Inside the major city walls, walking is the way to go... cars are restricted and an inconvenience. Trains get you from place to place pretty easily &, if you must drive (and we do), just be aware that Italy is the home of high car rental prices, weird regulations/restrictions/insurance coverages, a high price differential if you want an automatic, and very limited parking if you bring them into the major cities. But they are great for stopping at what looks interesting as you roam thru the many points between cities.
Sorry for the length of this, especially since I didnt really even answer your major questions.
re: Steve R
dont worry at all steve. we are ok with a bit of a lecture post.
based on all this feedback, we have decided to split the trip in two, with a flight connecting the two. half in sicily, and the half in a specific region (yet to be decided).
our flight into milan is purely from a logistics requirement (we are flying in from berlin). we are more than happy to land in milan and immediately get back on a plane to get to a more interesting region to travel around.
we are now trying to contemplate which region to dedicate our second half of the trip to aside from sicily.
Sounds good. Let us know which region you decide upon. Unfortunately, we've never been to Sicily so it'll minimize my comments on where to go, what to eat and how to dress :-) However, once you narrow down the other part of your itinerary, opinions will flow freely.
By the way, if you're at least partially based in SF, have you thought of asking the well known Slow Foods participants & other restauranteurs there where they'd recommend you go. I remember having a nice conversation with one of the owners of Incanto before one of our trips to Italy and I'll bet that, although they're from Sardenia, the owners of La Chiccia know a lot about Sicily. Owner friends of ours here in NYC even arranged a private olive frantoia visit/tour for us when we were in Umbria last year. Worth a shot. Of course, I'm a pushy New Yawker but...
re: Steve R
this thread has just caused quite a ruckus in this household. we have now cancelled our trip to brussels and berlin. we will now be flying from paris to italy. giving us 14 days in italy!
do you think we can do piemonte, EM, and Sicily?
we were thinking to fly into sicily, do 3-4 days there, and then the final 10 split between piemonte and EM.
we are definitely looking at some agriturismo. anyone have any experience with La Traversina?
any other agriturismo spots?
9 days is not enough...
Most artisanal producers are in the country - that suggests a car if seeing these products in situ, with the makers, is your priority
First, for cured meats, wherever you decide to go you should sample the cured meat appetizers (affetati misti) - the mix will vary all over the country.
Here are three areas we really enjoyed for the food culture.
I highly recommend the Bassa Parmense - the Po plain area, around Zibello - In Bussetto, there are a couple of places, the Sapore di Bassa shop/cafe and the Verdiana cafe, where you can sample plates of cured meat and in the former, cheeses. There is a nice moderate hotel in that town, Due Foscari -the Spigaroli establishment in Polesine Parmense offers tours of their culatello making, and informal dining in Il Cavallino Bianco and more upscale at their riverside "B&B" Antico Corte Pallavicina. (search for recent favorable reports) They also have very interesting housemade liqueurs local to this region like nocino (green walnut) and sburlon (quince).
Makers of parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto are also visitable in this region - we stayed at a fairly barebones but comfortable farm b&B outside Parma with a dairy operation that fed into a small parmigiano plant - they took us over (note,this was not cheap but less expensive than some of the other tours in the region) and we got to see the cheesemaking, along with the attached hog operation which used the leftover whey - very efficient. http://www.agriturismoleoni.com/
Also in this region are the most delicate, silky handmade pastas - I would say that this area is warm and humid in June - not a "mediterranean" climate
To me Naples and its region are premiere eating and cultural destinations - I would look into spending sometime in this area - Carla Capalbo's 10 year old book on the food of this region, highlighting many producers, and Luciano Pignataro's website provide great resources. This little restaurant in the historic center sells and highlights in its cuisine regional food specialties and they could be a great resource for locating small producers http://www.lastanzadelgusto.com/index...
lastly while liguria is not considered a premiere region for food there are still estimable local cooks and foodstuffs there and amazing scenery. Our stay in the lovely small city of Chiavari, just north of Cinque Terre,, and our meals at nearby La Brinca *with a roasted meat that was like the best BBQ). Luchin and Nonna Nina (the latter near Camogli) were extremely memorable for the care they took with the traditional regional foods.
Id recommend you read some of the recent posts on Sicily which may suggest where to go and not.
Looking forward to hearing about your trip
I think you guys are really going to have fun. My wife and I have been doing this for about the last 13 years. As others have recommended, the Slow Food Osterie D’Italia is our bible for good local food. Ours is the 2006 English version, but very little has changed. Please be warned, just because a restaurant is listed in a town, it does not mean it is in that town. It means it is within the administrative district of the town and it can be miles out in the country. One looks for little signs on the main roads to find these places or you must ask a local. Don’t hesitate to ask since almost everyone in Italy speaks a little or a lot of English. Most of the places we eat are out in the countryside. We simply rent a car and go where the weather is nicest in the first weeks of March. I try to avoid driving in the cities. For example, this year we stopped in Venice on a beautiful day, but we parked at the train station in Mestre and took the train into Venice, which was easy and inexpensive. I also try to avoid the Autostrada; you may as well be driving on a freeway in CA (except the toll way is in much better condition). Often time doesn’t allow you to use the local roads with their endless small villages, but it may make you want to do a return trip immediately if you’re stuck on the Autostrada too long.
Berninibee gave exactly the same advice I was going to give: Take a plane down directly to Sicily. If Sicily is the goal, and you want to spend a few days there, then that is the only way to do it, without spending days and days driving in between.
Other than that, it's really hard to give you answers to your questions, since they are so open ended. But to answer some of your questions:
Yes, cities like Rome and Florence are best visited on foot.
Yes, to visit artisans outside of those cities you need a car.
I would definitely advise against travelling the length of Italy, though, and instead focus on one other area (other than Sicily) to base yourself from. Then I would just take a fast train back up to Milan to leave.
Hope this makes sense to you.
I think you are overestimating how long it takes to both cover geography and sit down to eat a good meal in Italy. It is not just slow food. It is slow service, and not necessarily in a bad way. To get from Milan to Sicily in 5 days doesn't give you much time for exploring places where traditional still rules, and having a car would be a must in several areas.
Given the way you've described your food interests and budget, my suggestion would be that you arrive in Milan but immediately take a flight to Palermo, spend a few days in the city, and then rent a car and do a partial tour of the island. While in Palermo, buy the Osterie d'Italia guide (complied by the Slow Food editors), and follow its recommendations. Fly to Rome (from either Palermo or Catania airport).
If meeting up with people who cure meat is really what interests you, consider arriving in Milan and going directly to Parma by train. You can rent a car in Parma and visit meat production facilities in the region. You should do a lot of googling between now and the time you leave to find out where to locate these people. There are recommendations, too, in past threads of this board. (I have no personal experience of it so can't offer suggestions.) Fly to Sicily from Bologna if you need it to be part of your trip.
I also recommend that you invest in a real Italian menu translator (you can usually find them on Amazon and get them delivered rush order) and also invest in a copy of Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler so that you understand the regional specialties of Sicily and where best to eat what in June.
Sticking to Piemonte alone is also a fine suggestion, but be aware that the wines of this region and many of the recommended restaurants are what most travelers deem extremely expensive, and often the ambience is more upscale that what you seem to be looking for. You can also find recommendations on this board from allende and others for traditional food in Piemonte that is what you are looking for and which doesn't cost hundreds of euros per meal, but just make sure you know which is which. You will need a car if you follow the recommendations on this board. If you want to combine Piemonte and Sicily, you can return to Milan to find flights or fly from Genova airport.
Also be aware that eating well in Italy, even in rural places or in restaurants proud on their tradition of staying close to home cooking, is not necessarily inexpensive. Sometimes great food can be surprisingly economical (even in the cities). But it is rare to find a true bargain for high-quality ingredients for a full Italian meal in a sit-down restaurant. I've found that the best bet for that is to stay at the best agriturismi that also serve home cooked dinners -- but it takes a lot of research to pull a trip like that together.
thank you for the reply. we definitely understand the geographic difficulty of traversing the entire country in 9 days. to be honest, we have no issue with "feeling rushed" (ive flown to okalahoma joes for lunch....and we flew to napa for a dinner at french laundry). that being said, we were planning to do 3-4 days or so in the northern regions (parma, florence, or now maybe piemonte). then another 4 days in sicily. then a last day or two in rome to catch our return flight.
thank you for the setting expectations appropriately on pricing of meals. perhaps its a matter of perspective for us. we eat in SF, NYC, and LA most often in the US, so our home meals are usually about $30/person minimum. Our last trip of this nature was a few months ago to Japan, which was also not cheap. Our issue with "fine dining" and the costs is we hate to be disappointed with a multi-hundred dollar meal....dont get us started on french laundry (it was like a final exam for a michelin star...way too safe).
ok. we now that the plotkin book in our amazon shopping cart
any thoughts on cooking classes? (sorry to throw such a big question in)
To get from Milan down to Sicily and back to Rome in 9 days without feeling rushed or pressed for time will be quite a challenge.
I second the recommendation for spending a few days in Piemonte, where you will find possibly the best food in Italy, if not all of Europe. Having a car there will be a necessity.
You might want to check what days are "market days" in the cities & towns you are thinking of visiting. Various food growers and artisans in the countryside will be bringing their goods to market and be in one place on the same day. That will save you the time of tracking them down out in the hinterlands.
Buying a copy of the Slow Food Guide to the Osterias of Italy would certainly be a good investment for you. Fred Plotkin's "Italy for Gourmet Traveler" is also worth a look.
"a few days in Piemonte, where you will find possibly the best food in Italy, if not all of Europe"
DavidT is more than entitled to his enthusiasms, and I compliment him for including that tempering "possibly", but I am stickler for not overlooking the fact that individual palates and food enthusiasms vary, and that is a good thing to be respected. The cuisine of Piemonte, like every other region of Italy, is quite distinct, and what Piemonte does best may not be everybody's favorite dish. It is worth reading up on what the cuisine is before going there (true of any region of Italy). Many, many knowledgeable people prefer other areas of Italy for their food thrills, or other European countries!
fantastic! we will definitely look into the possibility of heading to piemonte.
i looked at the slow food guide on amazon, but feedback was saying that it was a bit outdated. do you think thats just a few people whining and the book is still overall great?
definitely going to look at having a great book by our side.
sorry for the confusion on this one. we are definitely not covering the entire country in 9 days. just trying to select the best region to visit aside from sicily. currently, we are debating between piemonte or maybe the parma/bologna/florence run.
we havent done enough research on piemonte, so we are reading a bunch now.
Search this board for anything to do with Piemonte -- and particularly posts by Allende. Piemonte is all about wine, food and some of the most unspoiled countryside in Italy. Stay in one of the many perched villages, try restaurants like Da Bardon, Il Centro and Da Renzo, drink great barolos and barbarescos at reasonable prices. In three days, you will have fallen in love.