Why every gourmet traveller should visit Italy
If all the pasta, burrata, wine and gelato aren’t enough of a siren call to Italy, the Negronis and Aperol Spritzes will surely be the clincher.
Italy is the land of plenty when it comes to good things to eat and drink. Each day revolves around food – the sourcing, preparing and sharing of it. From the morning’s first espresso to the evening’s final scoop of gelato, this isn’t the place to eat on the run or to grab something quick and plastic-packed from a supermarket. Italy is the country to go slow, to see what’s best and in season at the market, to be guided by local custom and tradition, and to take it all in one bite at a time – always in good company.
Italy is in fact home to the world’s only university dedicated to the study of food. The University of Gastronomic Sciences is located in Bra, in the northwest region of Piedmont, and offers courses that explore not just the history and culture of food in Italy and the world, but its political, environmental, social, economic and of course nutritional dimensions, too. Students take classes on chocolate, wine, cheese and more – a true dream for those serious about eating.
For those less studious and more just plain hungry, Italy’s 20 diverse regions are home to unique iterations of Italian cuisine, each reflecting the local land, people and climate of the area. Sicily’s plates are laden with sun-ripened tomatoes, eggplants and firm salt-preserved ricotta, while the mountains of the northern alps put forward meaty, unctuous ragùs, braises and rich cheeses. Menus in Rome’s Jewish quarter speak of the capital’s heritage, with menus listing deep-fried artichokes and zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, fried until golden and molten in the middle.
All down the coast, beachside trattorias make the most of the Mediterranean’s bounty. Spaghetti is tossed simply with vongole (small clams), butter, garlic and herbs, or grilled scampi and tomatoes, while whole anchovies, prawns and calamari are tossed into the fryer, squeezed with lemon and served up as fritto misto, the ultimate beach day lunch (especially when paired with cold beer or dry local white wine). In Milan, it’s all about aperitivo; small savoury snacks which arrive alongside your pre-dinner Negroni such as small rounds of salami or bruschetta, hot arancini or slices of focaccia, each increasing in size and substance with each subsequent drink.
A couple of things instantly come to mind when most think of Italy and that’s gelato and pizza – two of Italy’s supreme culinary gifts to the world. In Rome, you’ll find thick, rectangular pizza a taglio, sliced and sold by weight, while down in Naples, the birthplace of pizza as most of us know it, it comes puffed and charred at the edges thanks to a run in a wood-fired oven, with soft milky pools of fior di latte blanketing sweet tomato and basil. The fewer ingredients, the better is a sensible rule to abide by when it comes to pizza, and locals go for the marinara – a scant but full-flavoured combination of ripe, ruby tomato, fresh oregano and garlic.
Just as with pizza, it’s easy to find gelato on nearly every corner in just about every city in Italy. Steer clear of the mountains of fluorescent gelato piled up to lure tourists and head for the more pared-back, seasonal flavours such as peach or melon in high summer. Looking to pick a true gelato master from a hack? Try their pistachio; it’s said to be the toughest flavour to perfect.
The hills of Italy roll with vines, and it’s no secret that this is a destination for serious oenophiles. Sicily’s volcanic soil lends itself to dry, minerally white wines such as grillo and full-bodied reds such as nero d’avola, but if it’s textural, unfiltered, amber-hued skin-contact wines you’re looking to fill your glass, head all the way up to Friuli on the breezy, sunny Slovenian border. The most quintessential Italian wine experience you can have however, is a drive through Tuscany, one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. Tuscany is the home of Chianti, sangiovese and vermentino, and is blindingly picturesque, just like you’ve no doubt imagined it to be.
What goes best with wine? Cheese. Italy is home to so many classics. In fact, a trip to Italy could easily be planned around cheese – from parmigiano in Modena, to asiago in Trentino, fontina and taleggio in the Alps, gorgonzola in Lombardy, mascarpone in Milan and fresh mozzarella and ricotta in Naples. Cheese is used in sweet and savoury Italian dishes and so it’s not surprising to find it bookending a meal.
From top to tail, Italy is a Gourmet Traveller’s paradise. Food isn’t fuel in this part of the world, it’s a way of life, anchoring everything Italians do. To travel through Italy and not eat well is an impossible challenge. In fact, it’s hard to skip two blocks without encountering something delicious. Time for a holiday.
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