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Eating the Boot: A Grand Tour of Italy


tupac17616
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For a lover of Italian cuisine, culture, tradition and language, is there any more exciting time than the days leading up to one's first trip to Italy? If there is, I certainly don't know it. Right now I am less than two weeks away, and I couldn't be more thrilled...

Or, admittedly, more overwhelmed. Where to go? What to see? Most importantly, where to eat?! :cool:

I will be there for 9 full weeks, so there are certain cities I feel like I have to see this first time around. I’d like to make each of these areas temporary home bases, from which I could explore the surrounding region by foot, bike, car, bus, or train. Here’s the cities (and surrounding regions) I’m planning on checking out, along with a few food ideas I’ve got so far:

Palermo (Sicily) – pani ca meusa, swordfish, pasta con le sarde, tuna, cannoli, cassata, marzipan

Naples (Campania) – pizza, insalata caprese, limoncello

Rome (Lazio) – trippa alla romana, spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’amatriciana, cacio e pepe, gnocchi alla romana, carciofi alla giudea

Florence (Tuscany) – trippa alla fiorentina, bistecca alla fiorentina, pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, panzanella

Bologna, Modena, and Parma (Emilia-Romagna) – zampone, tagliatelle al ragu, culatello, prosciutto di parma, parmigiano-reggiano, aceto balsamico

Venice (Veneto) – fegato alla veneziana, cicheti, moeche, sarde en saor, granseola, seppie, pasta e fagioli

Milan (Lombardy) – risotto alla milanese, osso buco

Lots of ideas already, right? Well, I could use always use more for sure. After all, I’ve never been to Italy before, so I have no idea what I’m talking about! What else should I be eating in these areas?

And now, the question becomes: where to find all of these things? Is it stupid to plan as little as possible, and try to rely on a sort of culinary serendipity to find the good places? I don’t really want to lug around any guidebooks, and while I’m sure internet cafes are quite common, I don’t know that I want to spend a lot of time on eGullet while I’m there either! :raz:

So I implore you, my fellow eGulleters, for some help. Any recommendation of places in those cities, or even recommendations for day trips in the surrounding areas (have passion for exploration, will travel :cool:) would be incredibly appreciated.

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My questions are a bit large in scope, I realize, so maybe some personal background would be helpful. Like most, if not all of us here on eG, I love food. It’s kind of the lens through which I see the world. It brings me together with friends and family. It helps me discover new people, places, and cultures. Basically, it’s my passion.

The past four years have been spent literally eating my way around NYC. I’ve been to probably about 450 different restaurants in the city, from Masa to 5-for-$1 dumplings in Chinatown and everything in between. As a result, I’ve developed quite a penchant for fine dining, but I certainly more than appreciate a very wide spectrum of experiences. I appreciate innovation, but highly respect tradition. I’m just as happy, for example, eating “haute Italian” food at Alto, L’Impero, and Babbo as I am enjoying the rustic simplicity of the cooking at places like Peasant and Al Di La. My favorite cuisine, not surprisingly, is Italian. My favorite restaurant I’ve ever been to anywhere is Manresa, in Los Gatos, CA.

As I said above, I’ve not been to Italy before. This will be my first time. As you might have inferred from some of my food requests above, I definitely enjoy offal, pizza, and pasta, but I’ll eat absolutely anything. The more authentic, traditional, and regional specialties I can enjoy on this trip, the better. I don’t want the generic tourist spaghetti al pomodoro package; I want the real deal.

I speak Italian pretty well, but not with fluency just yet. I want to challenge myself a bit to immerse myself in it as much as possible during the trip. It’s the only way I’ll get better.

I don’t mind traveling for good food, either. I'm taking my sweet time during this trip, and I'll be in no hurry to do anything. I’m also comfortable having to find whatever mode of transportation is best suited to getting somewhere.

I’ll probably be staying in various hostels and the occasional hotel for the most part, but I’d also considered trying a couple of agriturismo spots. Anybody have experience with those? How was the food?

Sorry for 1,001 questions! I know I am asking a lot here, but eGullet has been an invaluable resource to me over the past few years, and I figured if anyone could help, it would be you guys! Thanks again.

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Grazie, pedalaforte. Good call on the agnolotti. And the bagna cauda. I've always enjoyed it with nice, crisp vegetables like radishes, but I was unaware of its regional origins. Hmm, and I thought tajarin were more typical of the Alto Adige. Guess ya learn something every day!

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Tupac, bravo! Have a wonderful, wonderful time!

I think it would be really helpful to you to scroll thru the Italian forum, a bunch of us 'studied' the different Italian regions. Each month we took on a different region; it is a goldmine of info. I think that Kevin72's signature line has a link that you can follow.

When you get to Umbria....let me know! Maybe you'll stop by for a visit!

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Tupac, bravo! Have a wonderful, wonderful time!

I think it would be really helpful to you  to scroll thru the Italian forum, a bunch of us 'studied' the different Italian regions. Each month we took on a different region; it is a goldmine of info. I think that Kevin72's signature line has a link that you can follow.

When you get to Umbria....let me know! Maybe you'll stop by for a visit!

Oh, I've definitely seen the wonderful "Cooking and Cuisine of ____" threads. What a treat those are. And I've also seen Kevin72's outstanding "Year of Italian Cooking" thread. Both threads have been incredibly educational, not to mention delicious looking!

In addition to that kind of stuff, though, I guess part of what I would look for here and in the rest of the Italian forum is some recommendations of specific restaurants, markets, and food shops in each of the areas. Places you've stumbled across on prior trips, place the guidebooks recommend that are actually worthwhile, etc. Part of the fun of traveling in general is discovering that kind of stuff for yourself. But eGullet has steered my food radar in the right direction time and time again, so I would be remiss not to ask for a bit of advice here!

I'll definitely let you know if I end up near Montone, too! Thanks for the offer!

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General advice: I'd also think about packing light when it comes to clothing (in a few places, grown-ups in shorts are forbidden entry as are women with bare shoulders, but maybe friars are being pressured to not discriminate and cracking down on guys too) and leaving a little room for a couple of decent guidebooks: Fred Plotkin's newly revised food lover's guide to Italy or whatever it's called (see a dedicated thread on this subject) and The Rough Guide to Italy if it isn't too thick. As for novels or reading on the train, there are second-hand bookstores such as the Paperback Exchange in Florence and cheap Italian PBs of English-language classics such as *Frankenstein* all over the place along with travelers you'll meet who will be more than happy to swap.

While there is plenty to do outside of museums and eating establishments, you might wish to reserve a ticket in advance by phone or online for popular destinations rather than wasting hours in lines that snake around the block at the Accademia or Uffizi in Florence, say, during the height of tourist season. Some cities have special events during the summer that include free entrance to monuments during the evening when they're normally closed. It's worth stopping by the city's tourist office, usually in or nearby the train station.

I am so envious that you're starting in Sicily. Go see the mosaics in Palermo and the outdoor markets and bring home pistachio paste from Bronte.

Once you move up the boot and hit the big cities, it would indeed be good to escape the crowds and go see Hathor's small town. However, I'd advise plunging back into the crowds for Assisi while you're in Umbria. In Tuscany, Siena is a good break from Florence (Divina's food blog & web sites! Check out Little Ms. Foodie's thread w sandwiches; Andrew Fenton, too) and an hour away by bus; Lucca is a town fewer visit and lovely with food spread on altars if you luck out. In the Veneto, if you have time, pretend you're Yeats in Ravenna and doff your hat at the ugly grave of Dante. Go to Padua and reserve a ticket online in advance to visit the Scrovegni (aka Arena) Chapel, the best thing Italians gave to the world that isn't cheese, pasta, literary, squeezed from olives or prompted by the death of a pig.

ETA: Composed in fits and starts before the previous post was added and therefore abbreviated.

Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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General advice: I'd also think about packing light when it comes to clothing [...] and leaving a little room for a couple of decent guidebooks[...]

Packing light is DEFINITELY an important goal for this trip. Since I lack any specific itinerary, I want it to be as easy as absolutely possible to move from one place to another whenever I feel like it. Thanks for the hints on guidebooks and bookstores to check out. I could probably also use a nice, compact little dictionary before I take off too, so I’ll check out the guidebooks then.

I am so envious that you're starting in Sicily.  Go see the mosaics in Palermo and the outdoor markets and bring home pistachio paste from Bronte. 

Pistachio paste, eh? I love pistachios. I must investigate…

[...] the Scrovegni (aka Arena) Chapel, the best thing Italians gave to the world that isn't cheese, pasta, literary, squeezed from olives or prompted by the death of a pig.

Hehehe. I really got a kick out of this. Hilarious! :biggrin:

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In Sicily find yourself around the docks of Mondello and keep an eye out for fresh uni. You will know it by virtue of the fact that they are scooping it directly from the sea urchins. As Robert Brown said, do not shortchange the seafood - especially in Sicily and Naples. While the food in Positano is not particularly extraordinary (it isn't bad) go see it as it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Nearby is Sant'Agata de Due Golfi where you can find the restaurant Don Alfonso 1890, which should provide a fix for your alta cucina needs.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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In Sicily find yourself around the docks of Mondello and keep an eye out for fresh uni. You will know it by virtue of the fact that they are scooping it directly from the sea urchins. As Robert Brown said, do not shortchange the seafood - especially in Sicily and Naples. While the food in Positano is not particularly extraordinary (it isn't bad) go see it as it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Nearby is Sant'Agata de Due Golfi where you can find the restaurant Don Alfonso 1890, which should provide a fix for your alta cucina needs.

Many thanks, doc! Uni is a favorite of mine. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the wonderful ricci di mare.

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A copy of Fred Plotkin's latest might come in handy on questions like this.

Or PM people who have made inquiries about an upcoming trip to Siciliy yet never reported back. E.g., an inquiry made in the past year about what Sicilian foods to bring home from vacation. Alberto hasn't shut down his blog and he's expressed a love for Sicily repeatedly, so conduct a search for Sicily at Il Forno, though you'll have better luck tracking down pastry and other baked goods such as his entry on Noto which refers to NYTs article by Burros.

Re the same town: scroll down for Corrado Costanzo.

Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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P.S. Who knows if there is a general list of all regional sagre (festivals, including ones devoted to local food)?

However, this site has useful information for travelers, including food festivals in Italy that it lumps under the category of "Lifestyle": click. Main page on Italy: here.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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Thanks, everyone. You've led me to some really great stuff, both on this site and on others! Now if only I could find a store that actually carries Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, I'd be in business. Maybe I can check a few places in NYC when I stop there for several days on the way to Italia...

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Oh, and instead of trying to tackle recommendations for all of the places I'm planning on checking out, I'm gonna do this thing one place at a time I think. So, for Palermo/Sicily in general, some thoughts so far:

Vucciria market

Antica Focacceria San Francesco

Pani ca Meusa

I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea

Osteria dei Vespri

Il Mulinazzo (Villafrati)

Corrado Costanzo (Noto)

Ristorante Duomo (Ragusa)

Ai Cascinari

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Thanks, everyone.  You've led me to some really great stuff, both on this site and on others!  Now if only I could find a store that actually carries Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, I'd be in business.  Maybe I can check a few places in NYC when I stop there for several days on the way to Italia...

Amazon has it--came out May 2007. If you'd rather not order from Amazon, I'm sure a bookstore near you would be happy to special order it for you (and if you can't find one, university bookstores will more often than not order anything for you).

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To quote from an earlier post -"had a wonderful lunch at Il Vigneto - our 3rd visit, 8 and 6 yrs ago, and now. This is a delightful spot near Menfi, in the midst of fields of artichokes. Three of us started with an intriguing pureed vegetable soup garnished with a large shrimp and drizzled with EV nocellera olive oil. Our 4th member had maybe the best pasta dish of our 10-day trip - taglietelle with a creamy sauce of baby shrimp and orange essence - fabulous! While we waited for our main course of grilled fresh fish and shellfish, we were presented with a platter of fried artichoke hearts sprinkled with lemon juice and salt and completely addictive. If you're in the area (Selinunte is nearby), don't miss Il Vigneto." Love this restaurant and return to it whenever we get the chance.

We also made a pilgrimage to Noto to have gelato at Corrado Costanza's. This was several years ago. Worth the trip! (Costanzo , Via S. Spaventa,Tel 0931835243. Also visit Caffè Sicilia, C.so V. Emanuele, Tel 0931835013.)

In Siracusa, have had good gelato at a little shop behind and to the right of the Duomo on Ortygia. There's also a good wine bar down that street (behind the Duomo) in the direction of the end of the island.

By the way, I thought the chef/owner of Il Mulinazzo closed up and went to Moscow a year or so ago. Can anyone confirm that?

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Amazon has it--came out May 2007.  If you'd rather not order from Amazon, I'm sure a bookstore near you would be happy to special order it for you (and if you can't find one, university bookstores will more often than not order anything for you).

THanks, Rona! I'd spotted it on Amazon (B&N didn't have it), but I'm actually leaving this Wednesday to NYC for a few days, so no place to mail it to! Maybe I can get a store there in the city to order it for me, though. That's a good thought.

[...] don't miss Il Vigneto." Love this restaurant and return to it whenever we get the chance.

We also made a pilgrimage to Noto to have gelato at Corrado Costanza's.  This was several years ago.  Worth the trip! (Costanzo , Via S. Spaventa,Tel 0931835243.  Also visit Caffè Sicilia, C.so V. Emanuele, Tel 0931835013.)

In Siracusa, have had good gelato at a little shop behind and to the right of the Duomo on Ortygia.  There's also a good wine bar down that street (behind the Duomo) in the direction of the end of the island.

By the way, I thought the chef/owner of Il Mulinazzo closed up and went to Moscow a year or so ago. Can anyone confirm that?

Thanks for the Il Vigneto and Siracusa recommendations. And I'm very glad to hear Corrado Costanza and Caffe Sicilia are worth the trek! Thanks for the warning on Il Mulinazzo. I'll certainly check into that, and maybe another eG'er can confirm. Wouldn't it be terrible to get all the way there to find a closed restaurant!

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A post I ran across on Chowhound confirms it: Il Mulinazzo is no more :sad:

Villafrati seemed so accessible, too. Gah. Maybe I can trek to Ragusa for Il Duomo somehow. Or maybe save the Michelin star restaurant pilgrimages for later in the trip.

There is, of course, the lure of gelato in Noto luring me eastward anyway. Hmm...

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I have never stopped in Messina, but if you find yourself there, the Gambero Rosso Guide recommends Le Due Sorelle (piazza Municipio 4, tel:0904470) and awards it their "Oscar for Quality and Price." This is a roster of restaurants that changes yearly and usually includes only 20-30 places throughout the country. We always seek them out and are never disappointed. Have you looked at the Gambero Rosso website? The most informative part is in Italian, but you can register and have access to loads of information. Happy travels!

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I have never stopped in Messina,  but  if you find yourself there, the Gambero Rosso Guide recommends Le Due Sorelle (piazza Municipio 4, tel:0904470) and awards it their "Oscar for Quality and Price."  This is a roster of restaurants that changes yearly and usually includes only 20-30 places throughout the country.  We always seek them out and are never disappointed.  Have you looked at the Gambero Rosso website?  The most informative part is in Italian, but you can register and have access to loads of information.  Happy travels!

Thanks for the tip. I registered with the Gambero Rosso site, and have been checking out the Italian part a bit. I see where they do the ratings from 1-100 and the 1/2/3 fork(s) thing, along with the restaurant details and description. But is there someplace I can see a list of these "Oscar for Quality and Price" places? Something like that would be very good to know.

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Whoops! Answered my own question. In the legend, it specifies the symbol to look for to distinguish the "Oscar for Quality and Price" places. It's too bad the restaurant search function seems to be a bit inaccurate, making it impossible to search directly for such places, or even to search for restaurants in a particular score range correctly for that matter. :hmmm:

ETA: But at least I found the Tre Forchette 2007 list. Sweet!

Edited by tupac17616 (log)
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tupac: when you get to any major city/tourist destination in Italy--or international airport--chances are you'll find Plotkin's book in English. In Florence, for example, I'd try Edison's.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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