Lardo di Colonnata: Fatback at its Best

While the rest of the western world may be moving towards low-fat foods, Italy clings steadfastly to its fatty treats. Creamy cappuccino is made with luscious whole milk, cheeses leave a perfect patina in your mouth to cut the tannins of robust wines, and charcuterie from prosciutto to 'nduja are not shy about their pork fat content. But perhaps the gourmet specialty most in-your-face about its lard is, well, lardo...or, better, that divinely herbed and aged fatback known as Lardo di Colonnata.

lardo-di-colonnata-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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La Maremma

Though many tend to think of Tuscany as a single entity, this region in central Italy is both vast and varied. From the rugged Apennine mountains to the romantic rolling hills of the Val D'Orcia, from the stark moonscape of the Crete Senesi to the lush vineyards of Chianti, just an hour or two drive in any direction opens up a completely new landscape, often with a unique culture and history behind it.

steer-maremma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the most interesting areas of Tuscany is also one of its least well-known: La Maremma. Stretching along the Tyrrhenian coastline in southwestern Tuscany and over the border into Lazio, La Maremma includes long beaches (some of which are in protected natural areas), a picturesque plain which had been uninhabitable marshland but was settled after being drained during the beginning of the century, and hills topped with charming Medieval villages.
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Tuscan Villages to Discover: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Montalcino

Italy is a country of contrasts, with differences between regions so stark that a trip from north to south seems to span a continent rather than a country.

Pienza(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

You don't need to drive for hundreds of kilometers to see how dramatically Italy can vary both culturally and architecturally. It is enough to simply travel a bit around the region of Tuscany, beginning in the elegant and bustling city of Florence marked by the wealth and power of the Medici and still one of Italy's most vibrant cultural and economic hubs, and moving on through the iconic Tuscan countryside to some of its lovely hilltowns, popular with travelers but with a quieter, more rustic atmosphere reflecting a humbler history much more closely tied to the rural culture of farming families and provincial nobility.
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Piero della Francesca Trail

Italy is so dense with history, art, and—most importantly—incredible food that it’s a gratifying country to simply wander guided by serendipity (and an expert travel planner) rather than an overly precise game plan. That said, themed itineraries organized around a specific artist, food, or historical period are an excellent way to both give a bit of structure and context to your meanders and discover memorable hidden spots that probably wouldn’t have made the A-list classic tour.

One favorite is the Piero della Francesca trail, winding through some of the prettiest towns on the Tuscany-Le Marche border where this Renaissance painter and mathematician lived and worked during the second half of the 1400s. Read More...

Where's the beef?

f you are looking for the best beef in Italy, look no further than Chianti, where you can sample some of the country’s finest cuts in the village of Panzano. Read More...

Siena’s Duomo Floor Revealed

The breathtaking floor of Siena’s Duomo, worked in inlaid marble mosaic by about forty artists from between the 14th and 16th centuries, is one of the most splendid of its kind in all of Italy. Read More...

Top Italian Music Festivals: Opera in Rome, The Arena di Verona, Umbria Jazz Festival and More

italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user *Debs*

Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).

As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.

Arena di Verona, Veneto


italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh

Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.

Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria


italian music festivals umbria jazz festival
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome


italian music festivals opera in Rome
Image by Flickr user Teldridge+Keldridge

Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.

Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany


Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.

Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast


italian music festivals ravello
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown

Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District


italian music festivals stresa
Image by Flickr user Pascal

When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.

Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche


Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.

Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany


italian music festivals florence maggio musicale
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica

Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

What We're Drinking: Some of the Outstanding Italian Wines On Our Table

pouring italian wines
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Wine is much more than something to sip, an accompaniment to a meal, or a gateway to an evening of merriment.

Great wine can transport you to places you’ve been – that enchanting pasta you can’t get out of your head or the calming view from the terrace of your favorite hotel – and places you want to be – that villa rental you’ve had your eye on or that bistecca fiorentina you can’t wait to sink your teeth into.

That’s why we like to keep a stock of excellent, hand-picked bottles of wine on hand. But if you’re anything like us, your stock may be hurting after the holidays. Over Christmas, we drained one of our favorites, a double magnum of Fanti’s Brunello di Montalcino, and can’t wait to stock up on some more.

With the new year come so many new reasons to celebrate, from the friendly rowdiness of a super bowl gathering (we’ve found that Italian wines work surprising well with chicken wings!) to the alluring calm of an evening together for Valentine’s day.

So here are seven amazing wines to top your table and fill your cellar, wine fridge, and belly:

Bubbly


Giulio Ferrari - Extra Brut


Though you’re not allowed to call it champagne outside France (in Italy it’s just metodo classico) Giulio Ferrari’s dry, crisp Extra Brut is our favorite Italian champagne. And it’s built to last! You can cellar this Extra Brut for up to twenty years. The highly flavored Extra Brut can range from brioche to chocolate to almond to cherries and cream depending on the year. As an added bonus, you don’t have to go to Trentino to try the whole Ferrari product line. The Lunelli family, owners of the Ferrari brand, recently started producing Montefalco wines just outside of Bevagna in Umbria and their sparkling wines are available for tasting.

White


Arnoldo Caprai Grecante Grechetto


When a renowned red wine producer in a primarily red-wine-producing appellation puts out a white wine, it’s worth a second glance. Grechetto has been grown in Italy since ancient times, but this Umbrian specialty is now regarded as one of Italy’s top white wine grapes. This excellent (and affordable) Grechetto bursts with fruit flavors and has a touch of sweetness that is well balanced by zesty crispness.

Antinori Cervaro della Sala


Antinori is literally a legend. The family has made wine for nearly 900 years and helped pioneer the Super-Tuscan revolution. But their Cervaro della Sala is, quite simply, one of the great white wines of Italy (perfect for cheering up a friend or brightening any occasion). Made in Umbria from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto grapes, the Cervaro seems light, but it’s built to age as well.

Ca Lojera Lugana


We first became acquainted with Ca Lojera because their owner is a huge opera fan whose stand at Vinitaly is decorated with a giant photo of Maria Callas, but we’ve put their Lugana into regular rotation during the summer because it’s a good everyday white. Produced on the southern shores of Lake Garda from 100% Trebbiano di Lugana grapes, the Lugana’s floral and fruity nose makes it a perfect pairing for a subtle pasta primo, such as the goat cheese and pumpkin ravioli we served it with for our first expat Thanksgiving dinner.

Reds


Podere la Cappella Corbezzolo


We also popped open a 2003 Corbezzolo for our first expat Thanksgiving, but unlike the light, crisp Lugana, this wine is meant for hearty food. We served it with mashed and roasted root vegetables that night. Podere la Cappella is a small vineyard that makes Chianti Classico in the bad years and standout Super Tuscans in the good years. Our clients love visiting this estate because it is the absolute embodiment of a hidden gem.

Allegrini Palazzo della Torre


We discovered this wine in 2006 on a visit to Verona in a simple osteria. (Where, by the way, Maria was a bit put off by the sheer amount of horse meat on the menu.) A blend of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Sangiovese, the Palazzo della Torre stands out because 30% of its grapes are harvested late. This unusual technique lends a surprising sweetness to this red. You can find it readily in the U.S. It saved our dinner in Verona for Maria.

Fongoli Rosso di Montefalco Riserva


italian wines fongoli rosso di montefalco

Image: © Concierge in Umbria

The Fongoli family is among our oldest friends in Italy. They are also one of the oldest commercial producers in Montefalco and we've spent many holidays and special occasions with them. It doesn't hurt that they produce stellar wines. Their Rosso di Montefalco Riserva combines the best characteristics of Montepulciano, Merlot, and Sangiovese grapes, with depth and richness from Umbria’s darling, the Sagrantino grape, that has catapulted the region’s wines to global status.

Hard to Find, But Worth a Look


Castel del Monte Rosso Vigna Pedale Riserva 2008 – Torrevento


Some of our favorite dining experiences in Italy have been spent at our dear friend Salvatore Denaro’s highly-acclaimed, but now-shuttered Il Bacco Felice. While Denaro maintains close relations with many local wineries, the 2008 Castel del Monte Rosso Vigna Pedale Riserva Torrevento he served remains one of our favorite reds. This wine comes from Puglia, is affordable and was a staple at many a dinner party when we lived in Germany. It might not be available in the U.S., but grab it if you find it.

And if you’d like to visit vineyards, vintners, and their vintages in person to select you own house wine, let us know. Italy has so many hard-to-find-in-the-U.S. wines that can make your cellar stand out. And we know many of Italy’s most prestigious wine makers personally. It’s our pleasure (and theirs) to share these wines with you.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

In Season: 5 Flavors of Italian Winter Soup

italian winter snow in florence
Image: © Concierge in Umbria - Elvira Politi

When you sit down to a meal in Italy, you may start with an antipasto like some sliced meat and cheese, or some seasoned olives and a glass of wine. But the primo - the course that simply goes by the Italian word for “first” - is where things get going.

Pasta may be the stereotypical (and most popular) primo, but in winter, Italians turn to soup. Warm, hearty, and filling, soups help combat the malaise of short winter days, perking you up after a long, cold day.

And while soup is a winter constant, every region, province, and town has its own favorites and small variations. In soup season, you’ll find these Italian favorites in one form or another all over the boot:

Ribollita


italian winter soup tuscan ribollita
Image by Flickr user Tuscanycious

Most associated with Tuscany, ribollita (Italian for reboiled) is an old peasant dish based on minestra or minestrone, vegetable soup. In winter, Italian wives used to cook up a big pot of vegetable soup and serve it three different ways over the days, first as vegetable soup, then soup over toasted bread, and finally a sort of vegetable porridge as the bread dissolved into the soup, thickening into the now characteristic ribollita.

Ribollita Recipes

Jota


italian winter soup jota
Image by Flickr user ilovebutter

Found throughout Italy’s northern regions, jota features ingredients that may seem out of place in a traditional Italian dish: sauerkraut and poppy seeds. A tasty and surprising relic of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s long hold on northern Italy, jota is a staple in Trieste, but you’ll find various versions throughout Fruili and across the border in Slovenia. Wherever you find it, jota always features a hearty base of potatoes, beans, and smoked pork.

Jota Soup Recipes

Tortellini in Brodo


italian winter soup tortellini in brodo
Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Fresh Italian tortellini are a heady concoction of diverse meats, (beef, veal, and/or pork) cuts, and cures (in Bologna, they add prosciutto and mortadella). Every mama has her recipe. And it’s typically a highly guarded secret. While tortellini in brodo is a staple dish throughout Emilia-Romagna, in Bologna, the top tortellini shops charge up to $20 per pound. A simple but soul-warming broth with a healthy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is the best complement for fresh tortellini. It's the soup to serve on Christmas.

Tortellini in Brodo Recipes

Pasta e fagioli



Image by Flickr user Arnold Inuyaki


Pasta e fagioli transcends the two main ingredients from which it draws its name – pasta and beans – into the pinnacle of Italian vegetarian (a.k.a. peasant) cuisine. In the U.S., it’s commonly known by its Anglo-Neapolitan name pasta fazool, as popularized by Dean Martin in his hit song “That’s Amore.” But like its many names, you’ll find endless variations. Cannellini beans here, borlotti (or cranberry) beans there. Curvaceous macaroni or miniscule ditalini. (Though in our house, we like to use leftover scraps from making fresh pasta). N.B.: As many people today add pancetta, be sure to clarify the ingredients if you’re vegetarian.

Pasta e Fagioli Recipes

Lentil Soup


italian winter soup lentil soup
Image: © Concierge in Umbria
Lentils have been a human staple for over 10,000 years, finding their way into iconic soups around the world from spicy Indian dal to the buttery, oregano-finished Turkish mercimek corbasi. The Italian version remains as simple as its name, zuppa di lenticchie, but the taste depends on the lentils you use. Umbrian lentils in particular are famous, especially those from Castelluccio di Norcia. High in protein and lightly seasoned with a soffrito base, bay leaves, and rosemary, Italian lentil soup is the ultimate comfort food – especially when paired with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a side of toasted bread.

Lentil Soup Recipes

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

A Tuscan Cooking Class with a Noble Twist: Cooking with the Contini Bonacossis

Anybody can sign up for a cooking class in Tuscany. But how about learning to cook with the private chef of a count and countess and then sitting down to lunch with the whole family . . . eating the food you just made?

The Contini Bonacossi Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In Tuscany, and especially Florence, the Contini Bonacossis are best known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) – friend of Simon Guggenheim and a Senator to the Kingdom of Italy – amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Now housed in the Uffizi, the collection was donated to the state in 1969.

Today's generation of Contini Bonacossis are best know for their food and wine. The family is one of the top producers of Carmignano wine, a wine that dates back 3000 years and in the 14th-century was one of the most valuable commodities in Europe. Carmignano is produced by only 13 estates, and when you visit you’ll see the family’s dedication to keeping this craft alive.

Arriving at the Contini Bonacossi Estate


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In the morning, depart from your hotel and climb the leisurely hills outside Florence with your driver. The Contini Bonacossi estate lies a half hour outside Florence in Tenuta di Capezzana.

On the sprawling grounds – you’ll get an excellent view from the hilltop villa – the family maintains large orchards of grapes, olives and lemons, which are raised in terraces called limonaie that transform into greenhouses in the winter.

After driving through the vineyard to reach the house, you’ll dive into your cooking lesson with the family chef Patrizio, who has been with the family for more than twenty years.

Cooking Ancient Tuscan Food


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi founded this cooking school in the 1980s to share traditional Tuscan cuisine based on ancient recipes with her guests, so you're in for a treat beyond the usual Tuscan dining experience.

Though they may include some of today's typical Tuscan menu items, such as ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and bistecca alla fiorentina, Patrizio also teaches particular regional dishes like stracotto alla Carmingnano (Carmignano-style pot roast) and baccala alla livornese (Livorno-style cod) and dishes based on local ingredients, such as penne ai tre cavoli (with three cabbages) or crostini di cavolo nero (with black cabbage).

At the end of your course, the Contini Bonacossis will also give you a bottle of wine or olive oil so you can recreate your meal at home.

Eating with the Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Dust the flour off your clothes, wash your hands, and sit down for lunch with the count, countess, and their whole family. Naturally, the contessa will don her pearls, but the family is quite laid-back, so you’ll do just fine.

After your meal, one of your hosts will escort you around the estate, including the wine cellars where they age their famous DOCG (the highest quality designation available for Italian wine) Carmignano wine. Once you’ve had your fill of the noble surroundings, your driver will cruise you back through the rolling hills into town.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy