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A Brief Culinary Tour of the Best Food and Wine Experience in Italy

It was recently reported that food and wine tourism in Italy doubled from 2016 to 2017. There were 110 million stays in food-and-wine-related accommodations last year which is twice that of the previous year. The sector generated an impressive 12 billion euros, representing 15% of the total tourism business in the country. Some 43% of stays last year were Italian food tourists (47 million) while the remaining 57% were international tourists (63 million).

Within Italy’s 20 regions, each has its own distinctive and delicious culinary traditions. Since the cooking styles vary considerably, you may stumble upon very different foodie experiences in towns that are a mere three miles apart. To some, trying to taste the most from a region in only three meals a day may sound daunting. At the Italian Tribune, this sounds more like an adventurous challenge. For those who are planning a get-away to Italy, we thought that a brief culinary tour from the north to the south would be useful.

The appeal of most Italian cuisine is in its effortless simplicity and purity. Not so in the Piedmont. During the Tribune’s recent coverage of the Publisher’s Tour, we brought you numerous articles about the foods and wines of the Piedmont. The northern region is surrounded on three sides by the Alps and borders both France and Switzerland. The dishes are best described as rustic, but refined, using such ingredients as local white truffles, gorgonzola, butter and world-renowned chocolates, as well as a liberal use of gnocchi and polenta.

Piedmont is also the home of fonduta, a cheese dip similar to fondue, but enhanced with truffles and egg yolks. It is also the home to bagna cauda, an olive oil-based dip deepened with anchovies and truffles that dates back to the 16th century and is unique to the region. The region’s wines include the unparalleled Barolo and Barbaresco, their vines benefiting from time spent on cool mountain slopes.

Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy is known as the bread basket of Italy. With its capital of Bologna, this region is considered by many to be the gastronomical and culinary heart of Italy. Its culinary gifts and delicacies make Italian food what we all know and love. If you desire to taste Italy’s best food, you must direct yourself to Emilia-Romagna for its robust, distinctive, and supreme cuisine.

A diverse geography encompasses a wide variety of influences on the region’s cuisine – exceptional wheat, incomparable butter and cream, cheese, veal and pork. The wheat that is grown produces a soft flour for the highest-quality pasta, unparalleled throughout Italy. Emilia-Romagna is also the source for many of the vital, staple ingredients that Italian cuisine is famous for: Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico, Parmigiano-Reggiano and an enormous variety of fresh, hand-made, stuffed pastas.

In central Italy, when you close your eyes and imagine Tuscany, you are likely to envision rolling sun-kissed hills, dotted with olive trees, grape vines and the occasional farmhouse and villa. It is a place where time slows and you can savor the rustic, earthy foods and wines that prevail here. While all that is true, this large and varied province is comprised of mountains, farmland, the seaside and also the bustling cities of Florence, Siena and Pisa.

As with all regions in Italy, uniquely bold food traditions pervade the area, such as a liberal use of beans, hearty soups, crusty loaves of bread, fennel-scented salami and sheep’s-milk cheeses. Chianina cattle and cinghiale (wild boar) are among the prized Tuscan meats, while locals enjoy stuffed pastas. Digesting these flavors calls for a bold red wine, such as a Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti or a Super Tuscan. Remember, Tuscany produces some of the best-loved wines in all of Italy.

As a wildly popular tourist destination filled with art, romance, quiet canals and stunning beauty everywhere you turn, Venice is the indisputable shining star of the eastern Veneto region. Naturally, Venice gets much of its seafood from the Gulf of Venice and the Adriatic Sea beyond it. Venture inland and you’ll find mountains and plains where traditional meals favor risotto and polenta, commonly prepared with ingredients such as radicchio, chicken and calf livers. We also have Veneto to thank for Prosecco, Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone wines.

In Lazio, there are more Michelin Star restaurants than in any other city in Italy. Dishes that are best enjoyed in the Eternal City include Roman artichokes, pasta dishes, Cacio e Pepe, which gets its flavor from Pecorino Romano and fresh black pepper and Da Danilo, which is a variation that adds guanciale and egg.

You cannot mention southern Italy without a stop in Naples, where the diversity of pizza is equaled only by the purity of ingredients and the passion of the pizza maker, but there is far more to Neapolitan cuisine. It has ancient historical roots which have been enriched over the centuries by the influence of the different cultures that controlled Naples and its Kingdoms. Naples also absorbed much from the culinary traditions of the Campania region, reaching a balance between dishes based on rural ingredients including pasta, vegetables and cheeses from the hills and seafood dishes from the coast. Recipes include those from the aristocratic past, such as timballo and the sartù di riso, which contrast with the simple beauty and flavor of pasta e fagioli.

At the heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia is home to a cuisine that can easily be characterized by its artful marriage of the striking flavors of lamb, goat, bitter greens and spicy peppers, with delicate ingredients of fava beans, fresh burrata cheese and a generous anointing of olive oil, which is among the finest produced anywhere in world. One of the prized dishes of the area is the sea urchin, or ricci di mare (sea hedgehogs) as we call them, which are sought after for their delicate roe. Whether eaten raw with a glass of wine, or with pasta, it is an absolutely unique dish.

The ancient coastal cities of Bari and Brindisi draw tourists to the east side of the Italian peninsula. Inland, the warm and arid plains are ideal for growing wheat and vegetables, which find their way into the produce-rich cuisine of the region, which heavily features pastas and breads. Orecchiette is a particularly beloved pasta here. On the peninsula’s western coast, the city of Taranto, on the cusp of both Mare Piccolo and Mare Grande, is a shellfish lover’s heaven, especially for mussels. Wines here aren’t as well-known as those Tuscan superstars, yet Puglia is an abundant wine producer, making everything from the robust Brindisi to the subtle Locorotondo.

In Sicily, the indigenous dishes pull heavily from the surrounding seas and such sun-loving vegetables as eggplant and peppers are complemented by a multitude of influences, with the use of raisins, saffron and cinnamon. The island has at least two dozen dishes that everyone should try, so the idea of having three meals a day needs to be expanded to five or six! Panelle (fried chick peas) from Palermo and Cassatelle alla Trapanese from Trapani are wonderful examples of famous street food, but these do not begin to scratch the surface. You must try Busiate with Pesto Trapanese, which is a local variation of the more famous Pesto Genovese, made from tomatoes, garlic, basil and almonds. Caponata is an excellent example of the genius of Sicilian food – flavors that together exceed the sum of the parts. It is a stew made with eggplant, tomatoes and vinegar, producing a true bittersweet Sicilian flavor. It can be served as a cold starter or as a warm side.

Palermo-style baked Anelletti is the most popular pasta dish made with little ring-shaped pasta, melted provolone cheese, soft fried eggplant in a juicy ragù. Sarde a Beccafico (sardine rolls with raisins and pine nuts) is a fisherman’s meal made with basic ingredients with a flavor as deep as the sea. Another variation of the roll is made with swordfish, one of the most popular fish from the surrounding sea.

Dessert is typically a much bigger deal in Sicily than in many other regions of Italy, perhaps because citrus fruits and nuts grow so abundantly here. This island is also the birthplace of cannoli, meltingly light pignoli cookies, as well as pignolata, torta setteveli, sfingi and Sicilian cassata. Whatever you try, it will undoubtedly pair well with either Sicilian coffee or a glass of Marsala wine, which also hails from Sicily.