Northern Italy Foodie Road Trip
In April 2014 Prue and I took a 12 day holiday in Italy over the easter break. The plan was to hire a car and drive across northern Italy visiting food and wine attractions. Despite the drizzly weather, it was one of our best holidays.
Milan to Lago Maggiore
We flew into Milan and arrived in the mid morning. However, our luggage did not arrive. So we arranged for the airline to drop it to our hotel, collected our car and hit the road.
It had been several years since I'd driven on the right hand side of the road and I'd never driven in Italy before. It was a bit nerve racking getting out of the airport and onto the highway, but soon enough we were on minor roads and made the slow but leisurely drive up to Stresa on lake Maggiore. It was cold and overcast, but still very pretty.
Grand Hotel Bristol
It was the low season on the lake, so we we able to get into the opulent Grand Hotel Bristol at a very good rate. The hotel was amazing. The bizarre and over the top decor made for a strange stay, amplified by the fact that it was almost completely vacant. Stresa was pretty, but nothing was really open, so we just let our jetlag wear off over some Aperol spritz and some cheeses and meats from the deli.
Locarno day trip
The next day we did a slow drive up to Switzerland to have lunch in a little town called Locarno. The food was excellent, and other than some locals we were the only people there.
Once the jetlag had passed it was time to begin our road trip. We made the journey from Stresa to Diano d'Alba in the Barolo wine region. Prue found a great Bed-and-Breakfast on a winery and a bit of the regular tourist trail. It was fun driving in on the little country roads, trying to navigate with no internet and dodgy rental car maps.
On the way to our accommodation we stopped for lunch at a winery near Asti for lunch. We had a delicious Barbera d'Asti with a steak and roasted vegetables.
Diano d'Alba was tiny, with only a bistro and a few small stores servicing the local farms. We had quiet dinner at the lively bistro, I think the proprietors were a bit confused by us, since we don't speak Italian, they spoke no English and it wasn't a typical time of year for tourists be visiting.
Wine Tasting Day Trip to Barolo
The main attraction for visiting the Barolo region was the wine. Prue and I are both fans of Nebbilo and no one makes it better than the Italians and nowhere better than in Barolo. We took a slow drive through lots of little villages, stopping to wander around and explore. It was interesting to see the easter decorations and sweets on display in the little stores.
We didn't really do any cellar door visits at vineyards, since so many were closed. But we did visit the wine museum and tasting centre in Barolo. The little store had an immense collection of current and previous vintage wines, all from the immediate surrounds (10km or less). We tried several beautiful wines and bought several bottles to have with us for the remainder of the holiday and some to take home with us. While the wines were not cheap, they were less than half what you'd expect to pay in Australia.
The next day was started our drive east. As best we could we followed the Po river in to Parma, in search of Culatello, Prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. Parma and the area surrounding are famous for their cheese and hams. I've never found Culatello in Australia, so I was excited to try it.
Culatello is a type of cured ham, similar to Prosciutto but its made of only the thigh muscle and it not cured on the bone. Also where Prosciutto is cured in strict climate controlled conditions, Culatello are cured in stone buildings by the Po river where the cool fresh air can blow in and circulate in a more natural and less controlled curing process. The results are amazing. Also Culatello is usually sold for about 4 times the price of Prosciutto.
Culatello and Busetto
We visited a Culatello producer outside of Busetto. For lunch we drove into Busetto and ate at a wonderful little bistro that specialised in local charcuterie and parmesan cheese.
After lunch we drove into Parma and spent the afternoon wandering around exploring.
The next morning I got up early and went for a jog around Parco della Cittadella (the old barracks). It was great getting to see the city as it woke up, wet empty streets and the smell of coffee and bread baking.
By the time I had finished my run I was ready for an Espresso. Prue and I went for a walk and out for breakfast before getting on the road. Next stop, Modena.
Traditional Vinegar Making Tour
We didn't have anything booked or planned for Modena, but we were keen to see how traditional balsamic vinegar is made. Whilst driving Prue was looking at signs and noticed one for a 'Balsamic Vinegar Tour', we gave them a call, and they happened to have a tour starting within the hour and just had two people cancel. We were only 30 mins away, so we booked in. And it was one of the best things that we did on the trip.
The guide showed us the farm where they grow the grapes, the cooking process and then finally the evaporation process. Where the cooked grape juice is transferred into smaller and smaller wooden barrels over years, sometimes decades. The results are amazing! I've never tasted anything like it. We tried about 8 grades of vinegar from every day table vinegar (not like the factory produced kind) up to their 20 year old premium vinegar. We of course bought a few bottles. One or two drops of the aged vinegar on good quality parmesan is a revelation, and it quickly became a staple in our home.
The next day for lunch Prue had booked us into a tiny restaurant hidden in the back of a delicatessen in Modena. It only had 4 tables no signage in the deli that it even existed. It was a wonderful, informal and delicious meal. Afterwards we popped out for an Italian craft beer, I had the Birra del Borgo Ducale, which is a rather heavy Belgian Strong ale.
The next day we headed to Bologna and returned the car. Bologna is a university town and fairly industrial. The traffic was hell, and the freeway and airport signage was useless. We spent a VERY stressful hour trying to figure out how to return the car. By the end of the ordeal I was in need of drink. So we went in search of a student bar. After some greasy food and cheap beer we decided we should have the local dish, Bolognese. It was pretty, it taste like Bolognese pasta.
With the car returned, that was the end of our road trip. We were now on the train and headed for Rome. Prue hadn't been to Florence before, but I had. We didn't have enough time to spend a few days exploring properly and visiting museums and galleries, but Prue didn't want to miss it. So we got the early morning train to Florence from Bologna, and spent the day exploring before getting the evening train to Rome.
Though it's only an hour south of Bologna, Florence was much warmer and drier.
We basically spent the day walking and looking at architecture. One highlight was definitely the Prosciutto panino with Truffle butter. Decadence in the extreme.
When we arrived in Rome it was a beautiful warm evening. We took a taxi from the train station to our accommodation in Trastevere. Trastevere is a low key suburb close to the city but a bit off the tourist trail. We loved it. First order of business after arriving was to find a pizza and a glass of wine. Our hosts were full of great local information and gave us some great tips.
We filled our days walking the city, as much as 20km per day, visiting the sites, eating and drinking.
Colosseum and Ancient Rome
The obligatory visit to the ancient city and the Colosseum was excellent.
Trastevere and local neighbourhoods
But the highlight from our time in Rome was exploring Trastevere and its hidden gems. Our absolute favourite was KM Zero, which focused on locally sourced, ideally home grown or made produce. Everything that they served was either made or grown in the city limits or with 20km of Rome. The food was great, the staff were friendly and we spent several hours hanging out here.
Before we'd left Italy, Prue and I were planing our next trip. I could imagine myself visiting Italy many times in my life.