Truffle Hunting in Piedmont
One time of year that every Italian relishes is truffle season. The Italians are crazy about truffles for the distinctively earthy, pungent flavor they give to oils, sauces and pasta dishes.
While truffles are found in different parts of the country, one region where they are particularly abundant is Piedmont in the far northwest of the country. Here you can strap on hiking boots and head deep into the woods for a couple of hours with a trifulau (truffle hunter) and a well-trained dog in search of the tartufo nero (black truffle) and bianco (white). Some trips offer the option of heading back to a farm to cook the truffles and enjoy them at their freshest.
White truffles are harvested from around mid-September when the fall mists begin to December or January, black truffles from May to November. The absolute highlight of the truffle hunting calendar is Alba's Fiera del Tartufo in October, celebrating the prized, highly expensive tartufi bianchi (white truffles) that can sell for hundreds of dollars apiece. Most restaurants feature truffles on their menus at this time.
Check out this 14-day trip to Tuscany, which includes a day of truffle hunting outside of Florence.
Learn About Olive Oil in Puglia
Competition is hot, with many Italian regions up and down the country producing superb quality extra-virgin olive oils that are pure, cold-pressed, golden-green in color and peppery in flavor. For total immersion into olio d'oliva, Puglia at Italy’s heel comes out tops. Covered on this Cycling in Southern Italy itinerary, this hot, arid region produces more extra virgin olive oil than any other, and quality is second to none.
Puglia is cloaked in silver-green olive groves, with a staggering 60 million olive trees producing its highly prized oil, which can be sampled on an olive oil tour along the 87-mile Strada dell’Olio di Puglia (Puglia’s Olive Oil Road), which takes in olive oil presses, medieval hamlets and villages, and farms that open their doors for tours, tastings and sales.
Vineyard Tours & Wine Tasting
Italy simply wouldn’t be the same without the romance of its sloping vineyards and popping corks at aperitivo hour. The wines its regions produce are as rich, complex and varied as the country itself. And the Italians are rightfully passionate about them.
You can sample regional wines in enoteche (wine bars) everywhere, but to appreciate their more subtle nuances, you can’t beat a guided tour, which makes getting from cantina (cellar) to cantina a breeze. Many tours factor a hearty lunch into the bargain.
Tuscany is one of the better-known regions, with charming wineries opening their doors in Chianti, between Florence and Siena, for tastings of the ruby-red Chianti Classico. It’s an idyllic region for a wine tour, with lanes wending past warm-stone farmhouses, vines, olive groves and medieval hill towns. See our 7-day trip to Tuscany for more.
Further south, you’ll find robust, medium-bodied Montepulciano and bold, full-bodied Brunello di Montalcino reds. For a novel take on wine tasting in Tuscany, check out our feature on cycling the Eroica.
Other regions worth seeking out for a wine-loving tour include the mountainous Piedmont for its stunning and sophisticated Barolo reds, and the Veneto for its zesty, peachy Soave whites, velvety Amarone reds from the Valpolicella, and sparkling Prosecco.
Sicily is swiftly becoming one of Italy’s hottest wine regions, with grapes thriving in the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna. Wines to try here include honeyed Marsala (a sweet dessert wine) and spicy, fruity Nero d'Avola.
Learn to Make Pasta, Gelato, and More
If you would rather roll up your sleeves and learn how to whip up your own Italian feast, why not sign up for a hands-on cooking class? There are plenty of options to choose from all over the country. You might learn to prepare a single dish or an entire menu, but typically classes last for around three hours and involve preparing an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, followed by a meal where you can enjoy the fruits of your labors.
Many classes are in small groups and some begin with shopping for groceries at the local market. They are an excellent way to get a slice of local culture, meet and socialise with fellow travellers and break up sightseeing. Plus you’ll leave armed with recipes to try out back home.
What you cook will depend on where the course is. So it might be risotto or polenta in Venice, classic tagliatelle al ragù (better known as spaghetti Bolognese) in Bologna, gelato in Naples, truffle-based dishes in Piedmont and Umbria, gnocchi in the Dolomites, pesto in Cinque Terre, or the perfect pizza in Rome. For more on the latter, see our Food & Wine in Italy itinerary.
Eat Local in Emilia-Romagna
Even Italians go into raptures at the mention of Emilia-Romagna. This is one of the country’s hottest foodie regions. The capital, Bologna, is nicknamed, La Grassa (“the fat one”) with good reason. This is the birthplace of tagliatelle al ragù, thick egg pasta ribbons served with a rich meaty sauce. Plenty of restaurants in town serve up the real deal.
But Bologna is just tip of the iceberg stuff. The best way to take a proper bite out of the region is on a guided, multi-stop food trip that takes you further afield to Parma and Modena for behind-the-scenes tours, tastings and edible gifts to take home.
Parma is of course the birthplace of world-famous Parmigiano-Reggiano, the wonderfully crumbly, nutty, salty cheese we call Parmesan. A trip to a dairy reveals the hard work that goes into making this PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheese: from separating the curds to brine washing and aging the enormous wheels in cellars for 12 to 36 months.
This experience can be tied in with a visit to a salumificio (cured meat producer) in the hills to see how sweet, silken prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) is prepared. You could then round out the day at one of Modena’s acetaia (vinegar producers), where age-old family traditions are still in operation. Balsamic is vinegar like no other. Aged for at least 12 years, the older it gets, the richer, darker and more syrupy it becomes.
Street Food in Sicily
Nowhere in Italy does street food better than Sicily, a volcanic island down south that gets bellies rumbling. Geographically the island is closer to North Africa than Rome, and this is reflected in its rich, distinctive use of spices and more exotic flavors.
You can eat well for loose change in the backstreets of coastal cities like Palermo and Catania. Here you can sample the likes of sfincione (thick-crust Sicilian-style pizza topped with onions and caciocavallo cheese), saffron-infused arancini (stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs) and savory panelle (chickpea flour fritters). Follow up, say, with a refreshingly fruity granita, a semi-frozen granular dessert that is like summer in a glass.
The Sicilians have had a snacking culture for centuries, perhaps because it’s so hot here that most life happens outdoors. Wander the markets, find a street food stall, part with a couple of euro, and watch the chef grill or deep fry your treat right in front of you.
For more on Sicilian cuisine, see our article on Signature Sicilian Dishes.