We spent 3 months last summer travelling through 12 of the 20 regions of Italy. Our objectives were to stay as much as possible in the countryside because it was summertime and to visit places we had never been to before. We were rewarded with unforgettable, unique experiences in pristine locations untouched by mass tourism. It was completely worthwhile. What we found were special places which will live in our hearts forever. Here are the highlights of our trip to Liguria, Sardegna, Lombardia, Trentino Alto-Adige, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Veneto, Le Marche, Emilia Romagna and Umbria:
Baita Fraina, Alto Adige
Baita Fraina was definitely a highlight of our tour in which we dined in more than 150 restaurants. We arrived for lunch and found a cozy corner in their charming dining room. We wanted almost everything on the menu and the wine list was extraordinary in terms of selection, old vintages and value for money. When the food arrived, we immediately asked if we could come back for dinner that day. Everything was exceptional. Particularly delicious dishes included the earthy mushroom ravioli (casunzei ai porcini) and pasta and main courses made with venison and lamb. As a perfect ending to the perfect meal: we walked out of the restaurant with our two children onto a large open lawn with a playground and spotted a deer. It was the perfect place to bide our time until the next meal.
TRATTORIA AL CACCIATORE DELLA SUBIDA, Friuli Venezia-Giulia
I never knew before I arrived at La Subida that I had in mind the perfect rustic family countryside holiday destination. La Subida is family-run relais complete with a formal restaurant and a more casual osteria, horseback riding facilities, tennis courts, a garden, a cooking school, trekking trails, swimming pool, a playground for children and cabins for those wishing to never leave. It is located very near to Castello di Spessa (see number 16) for those looking for more indulgent accommodation.
Trattoria al Cacciatore della Subida is one of my favourite restaurants in Italy not only being the epitome of country gentility, the warm and cozy familial feeling but for its truly excellent cooking, which draws on the best of local products. Care and thought are imbued in every detail, from the copper ice bucket for our water to the customised activity packs presented to the children which were styled in keeping with the ethos of La Subida. Not to be missed is their caramelized roast veal shin (stinco di vitello) carved tableside or their hearty lamb stew served in a large glass preserving jar.
Their informal restaurant, Osteria di Subida, across the street had a simple Friulian/Slovenian menu, which was light on the wallet; perfect for a casual everyday meal.
Parmesan is one of the most famous cheeses in the world and is an ubiquitous presence on the table of any Italian restaurant. What is less known is that anything labeled “Parmesan” is not in fact Parmesan. In fact the name “Parmesan” is not permitted to be used within the European Union. The true Parmesan is now called Parmigiano-Reggiano and can only be made in the area spanning from Parma to Mantova under strict conditions regulated by the consortium. It is a product protected by the EU (PDO- Protected Designation of Origin).
We went to visit CPL Parma, one of the 200 producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was fascinating to watch the enormous wheels of cheese being made by cheesemakers who have been doing this job for generations.
The cheese is made once a day in the morning using milk from the Bianca Modenese cattle (white cows from Modena) which are milked twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. The milk from the evening is brought into the dairy and placed on long stainless steel tables. The evening milk is skimmed and is mixed with the fresh morning milk, veal rennet (to coagulate the milk) and 20 litres of the previous day’s whey from making cheese (acts as a culture of natural lactic fermentation to expedite the process) in large cone-shaped copper lined pots more than 2 meters deep. The pots hold 1,100 to 1,200 litre milk which will become 2 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano (it takes 16 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese).
We watched 7 very serious men deftly working the milk to create cheese. The curd weighs 100 kilos and is collected in large pieces of linen (traditionally hemp was used). Two very strong men hold opposite ends of the cloth while a third man cuts the curd mass in half to form two wheels of cheese. The curd is then placed into a mould (fascera). The moulds are weighted down and then transferred to a perforated metal mould lined with a braille-like stamp for another 2 to 3 days. The stamps are issued by the consortium and have the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” in a repeating pattern. The cheeses are then soaked in brine and aged on shelves for 12 or more months.
After 12 months, an expert cheese tester arrives, places the cheese on a heavy stool and knocks on the cheese with a mallet, listening intently for the correct uniformity of sound. Only once he has approved the cheese with a green marking can it become “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and be branded with the oval mark reading, “Parmigiano Reggiano Consorzio Tutela” with the year of production.
Villa Giulia, Le Marche
Villa Giulia is a stately country home in Le Marche near Fano which is owned by a family from Rome. It is an enchanting place to spend time in the sunflower fields next to the pool. There are cold drinks which are self-service using an honour system, the vegetable garden and vineyards are nearby. The villa itself is full of family heirlooms and antiques giving an ambience of staying with an old friend. The food is fantastic, with platters of fruit, homemade cakes and refreshing cocktails on offer all day. Dining al fresco overlooking Fano and the Adriatic Sea out to the distance is the perfect ending to a relaxing day.
Loreto, Le Marche
Loreto in Le Marche is a major site of pilgrimage for Christians and an unmissable place even for the non religious (of which I count myself as one). Despite having seen seemingly millions of churches this far in life, we were not at all prepared for this basilica.
The 15th century Basilica houses the Holy House, the Virgin Mary’s house (Jesus Christ’s mother for those unfamiliar), and sits on the eastern part of the main square, Piazza della Madonna.. Mary’s home in Nazareth (today in Israel) was made up of two parts, a grotto cut out of rock and a small stone house in front of the grotto. In 1291 when the Crusaders were expelled from Palestine, the small stone house was transported by “angels” first to Croatia and then to Loreto on 10 December 1294. Mary’s tiny home is now encased in marble and housed within the amazing basilica, more extraordinary than any I have ever seen before.
L’Albereta is a Relais & Chateaux hotel (a hotel association known for relaxed elegance) and is owned by the same owner as the Bellavista winery. It is the quintessential understated luxury: rooms filled with fresh flowers and frescoes on the walls inside and beautiful gardens and rows of vines overlooking Lago d’Iseo outside. Every angle was picture perfect. The terrace offered a panoramic view of Franciacorta and Lago D’Iseo to the north, best enjoyed with a glass (or bottle!) of one of their extensive list of Franciacortas. The perfect romantic getaway or fun spa catch-up with friends.
Merano, Alto Adige
The enchanting spa town of Merano is set amongst the towering green alpine mountains dotted with fairy-tale castles. Upon inspection the mountains are terraced with trellised apples and grapes.
The panorama includes little wooden houses nestled in valleys beneath towering mountains with waterfalls cascading down them. Tyrolean houses with their characteristic sloped wooden roofs and wooden terraces lined with bright coloured flowers are the standard. Meadows of wildflowers, the sound of cow bells ringing and countryside restaurants with picnic tables outside serving huge plates of apple strudel and coffee to chatting locals.
During the summer in Merano, stroll along the cooling river following the Passeggiata d’Inverno along one side and crossing over to return back along the Passeggiata d’Estate. Musicians played outdoors while children played. Merano was one of the highlights of our trip with its beautiful Tyrolean architecture and thermal baths frequented by Empress Elisabeth of Austria no less.
Outside Merano there is also the Trauttmansdorff Castle and its amazing gardens which can be visited. They do music concerts around water-lily ponds in the evening during the summer.
Trattoria Visconti, Lombardia
On our way to Lago d’Iseo to see the Franciacorta area, we stopped outside Bergamo for lunch at a lovely countryside trattoria housed in an ancient manor house. This was our favourite meal of the trip. We sat outside on the terrace and took the kids in back to see the garden and chickens providing the ingredients for our meal.
The service was heartfelt and attentive. The food was authentic and excellently prepared using family recipes. Our boys finished full bowls of rich casoncelli (cured meat, bread, eggs and cheese filled pasta). Meanwhile we tucked into plates of polenta and a cheese plate featuring local and rare cheeses. Great wine list too.
Strada dei Dolomiti, Trentino, Alto-Adige, Veneto
Green valleys are dotted with yellow, pink, purple and white wildflowers. Towering over are awe-inspiring mountains of sheer rock. Charming wooden houses straight out of Hansel and Gretel peek out from behind trees. Each twist of the road brings an even more spectacular panorama into view. This is the Strada delle Dolomiti (the Great Dolomite Drive) a 210 km drive from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo, passing through 3 regions (Alto-Adige, Trentino and Veneto).
The drive is best done over 2 days to really enjoy it. We drove first from Bolzano in Alto-Adige to Canazei in Trentino and the next day from Canazei to Cortina d’Ampezzo in Veneto. Lago di Carezza (Carezza Lake), reputedly the most beautiful alpine lake, is near the beginning of the drive.
Next, passing the Vigo di Fassa (a popular ski area), is Canazei. Canazei is in the centre of the massif, surrounded by the Catinaccio, the Torri del Vaiolet (Towers of Vaiolet), the Sella Massif and the Marmolada (the highest massif in the Dolomites with a cable car departing from Malga Ciapela offering panoramic views from 3,265 m).
Outside Canazei is the Passo Pordoi, the highest pass on the Strada delle Dolomiti at 2,239m. It is also the departure point for a funicular to the Piz Boe peak at 3,000m, the tallest in the Sella group and offering one of the best panoramas in Europe.
Just north of Canazei is the Passo di Sella (a pass offering breathtaking panoramas) and Val Gardena, notable for its beauty, woodworking and the Ladin dialect spoken there (a dialect born during Roman times which only 30,000 people still speak today).
Cortina d’Ampezzo, the final destination, is the capital of the Dolomites and a jet-set ski destination. On offer are luxury accommodation, designer shopping and fine dining (see Baita Fraina – number 1).
Finsterwirt Oste Scuro, Alto Adige
Finsterwirt Oste Scuro is located in a 500 year old hotel in Bressanone. The food, ambience and service are excellent. My husband tucked into a plate of tender venison with buckwheat polenta while I enjoyed buckwheat and speck canederli. Our sons had the crisp crusted but tender and juicy weinerschnitzel which was delicious. We left room for the trio of strudels – apple, ricotta and cherry. I would urge you to go to Bressanone if only to eat at Oste Scuro.
Da Toni, Friuli Venezia Giulia
Da Toni, a restaurant in Varmo, offers elegantly presented refined local dishes either while sitting in a lovely well-manicured garden filled with sculptures or in their dining room complete with the traditional Friulian fogolar (a central fireplace commonplace in local farmhouses).
Don’t miss the suckling pig with its juicy, soft meat and crisp crackling and the frico (crisped cheese tuiles). Place yourself in the hands of the attentive staff to select your meal as the chef makes many new dishes daily.
Da Toni is located nearby Villa Manin is a 16th century Palladian Villa whose previous inhabitants included the last Duke of Venice and Napoleon Boneparte (albeit briefly) which is worth a post-meal stroll.
San Leonardo, Trentino
San Leonardo is a very special winery started by crucifer monks (Frati Crociferi) in 1215. The estate carries an air of gravitas, this is the weight of history. The air feels different and the imposing cliffs of the Dolomites serve as a dramatic backdrop to the rows of vines. This is where the Alps meets the Mediterranean, creating a microclimate which enables even the growth of normally tropical banana trees.
The estate covers 300 hectares of which 25 hectares are vines and a beautiful villa, the historic summer home of the Marquis’s family. They produce some extraordinary Bordeaux-style red wines which must be tasted.
Hotel Turm, Alto Adige
This boutique hotel is a designer hotel owned by Romantik hotels. It is located in a 13th century building in a small village. There is art covering all the walls including a Picasso. The restaurant is excellent as is the breakfast. Definitely book a table outside in the summer sitting near the pool under the large clocktower of the neighbouring church. There is a nice indoor/outdoor pool and a spa featuring hay baths and wine infused beauty products.
Foresteria Serego Alighieri and the Valpolicella, Veneto
Valpolicella is a lovely little valley studded with villas and vast estates where some of the best wine in Italy is produced. It sits in an enviable position in Veneto to the east of Lago di Garda, protected from the worst of the cold weather by the Alps, and near the city of Verona.
There are four traditional red wines from Valpolicella made from the same grapes (Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara) but using three different methods. The best wines they produce are Amarone (a semi-dry red wine) and Recioto (sweet red wine). The Valpolicella Ripasso can be excellent value.
Stay at the Foresteria Serego Alighieri estate which has 8 lovely apartments, the Villa Serego Alighieri and the winery. It is owned by the 20th generation and direct descendant of Dante Alighieri who spent several years in exile in nearby Verona. Dante’s son, Pietro, purchased Casal dei Ronchi in Gargagnago in 1353. Stay in one of the spacious apartments, roam the estate during the day, enjoy a cappuccino next to the lawn and taste Serego Alighieri and Masi wines in the wine shop. Tours of the winery are possible by appointment as are cooking classes.
Dal Forno, Veneto
We visited Romano dal Forno in Valpolicella to discover the genius behind one of the world’s best Amarone only to discover an even better wine, their recioto. From our visit we concluded that a true Amarone artisan needs ingenuity, perseverance, dedication, conviction and passion…with a touch of insanity.
The commitment Dal Forno has to quality is evident in tasting their wine and obvious during a tour of their extraordinary winery.
Castello di Spessa
The splendid Castello di Spessa is a luxury hotel set within a castle (parts of which date back to the 12th century). The interior is decorated with furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. The hotel has sumptuous entertaining rooms which would be perfect for a formal wedding. For centuries it has hosted aristocracy and famous people including Giacomo Casanova (whose name today remains synonymous with a womanizer).
There is a beautiful park surrounding the castle, an 18 hole golf course, two restaurants and the Pali winery with medieval cellars (their top wine is named for Casanova). Breakfast in the historic kitchen gives a true sense of villa life.
Asolo and Villa Cipriani, Veneto
Asolo is a charming hilltop medieaval town in Veneto known as the “City of a Hundred Horizons” for its panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful and well-preserved historic town with an amazing boutique hotel, Villa Cipriani of Cipriani of Venice fame. Rooms opening out onto large verandas to take in the countryside, the pool set on the lawn to sip cocktails at and the tables set in the garden to enjoy delicate spider crab filled ravioli (granseola ravioli) or fat bigoli pasta served with duck meat sauce (bigoli all’anatra).
Dolce e Salato, Emilia
This restaurant is not much to look at from the outside. But as we all know appearances can be deceiving, as they are in this instance. Inside is a traditional Italian restaurant serving excellent Emilian food such as fresh pasta with bolognese meat sauce (tagliatelle con ragu bolognese), meat filled fresh pasta in broth (tortellini in brodo), sheets of fresh pasta with pumpkin, parmesan cream and balsamic vinegar (fazzoletti di zucca con crema di parmigiano e aceto balsamico), etc. Every bite you would be happy if it were your last. Silky, hand rolled pastas wrapped around meaty fillings or dressed in slowly cooked meat sauces fill the menu. The only consolation to living so far away from Dolce e Salato is that my trousers still fit.
Borgo dei Conti, Umbria
Borgo dei Conti is another Relais & Chateaux hotel, this time set in a mediaeval fortress amongst the greenery of Umbria. Inside the resort is a large park complete with an olive grove and Baroque chapel. The food is contemporary but excellent, served in the formal dining room or outdoors. Definitely try the pork confit (tonno di Chianti), griddled bread filled with cheese, meat and/or greens (torta al testo) and the fresh pasta with sausage, black truffles and almonds (taglierini all’uovo profumati al rosmarino con salsiccia, tartufo nero e mandorle). It is conveniently located near to Perugia, Todi and Lake Trasimeno so day trip opportunities are plenty.
Localita Fraina, 1
32043 Cortina d’Ampezzo
Tel: +39 0436 3634
Closed Mondays during low season
This is one of my favourite restaurants in Italy. Just outside Cortina d’Ampezzo, it has the perfect mix of country charm, professional yet down to earth hospitality and excellent food. Did I mention the amazing wine list with equally amazing prices? They also have a great lawn, children’s playground and forest to run the wee ones before lunch. They also rent out rooms. We are already planning our return.
Recommended dishes: casunziei alle rape rosse (ravioli filled with beets in a butter poppy seed sauce – the specialty of Cortina), casunziei ai porcini (ravioli filled with cheese and mushrooms in a porcini mushroom sauce), tagliolini al ragu bianco al cervo (pasta with venison meat sauce), tagliatelle integrali al ragu d’agnello e finferli (pasta with lamb and chanterelle mushroom sauce), filetto di manzo ai porcini (beef fillet with porcini mushrooms) and tagliata di filetto di cervo con mirtilli rossi e aceto balsamico (venison with lingonberry jam and balsamic vinegar)
TRATTORIA AL CACCIATORE DELLA SUBIDA
Via Subida, 52
34071 Cormons (GO)
Tel. +39 (0) 481 60531
This lovely restaurant is renowned for its elegant countryside ambience. They also make their own vinegar, l’aceto di uva Sirk, which they use as a condiment on eggs, omelettes, soups, tripe, fatty fish, oysters and fruit as well as a refreshing sorbet. They sell their homemade vinegar, Fossa cheese and wine online at shop.lasubida.it
Recommended dishes: gnocchi di susine (dumplings filled with plums), stinco di vitello (roast veal shin), lamb stew
12, Via De Gasperi,
Tel: +39 035 908 153
Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 2 weeks in June
This restaurant has been recognised by the Lombardy Regional Authority as an important local establishment. The trattoria is in an ancient manor house which has served the public since 1932. There are chickens and an amazing vegetable garden behind the restaurant which can be visited. This is Italian country dining at its best.
Via di Villa Giulia, Località San Biagio 40
61032 Fano, Pesaro
L’ALBERETA RELAIS & CHATEAUX
Via Vittorio Emanuele 23
Erbusco, 25030, Italy
A beautiful luxury hotel in the heart of Franciacorta.
Finsterwirt Oste Scuro
Tel. +39 0472 835343
E- Mail: email@example.com
Recommended dishes: zuppa di sylvaner con krapfen (white wine soup served with a doughnut), controfiletto di cervo rosolato con salsa di pepe, pure di sedani e polenta di grano saraceno (venison in pepper sauce with celery puree and buckwheat polenta), canederlo pressato di grano saraceno allo speck con spinacino marinato (buckwheat and speck dumplings with marinated spinach), weinerschnitzel (breaded and fried veal chop), strudel (thin pastry rolled with apple, cherry and ricotta and baked).
TRATTORIA DA TONI
Via Sentinis, 1
33030 Frazione Gradiscutta, Varmo
Tel: +39 0432 778003
Closed Mondays and Tuesday mornings
This 85 year old restaurant is an excellent representative of Friulian hospitality. The service is formal but personable. The food is excellent and I can’t recommend enough the suckling pig. I would urge you to let them order for you (giving them some guidance as to your preferences).
ROMANTIK HOTEL TURM
Piazza Chiesa 9
39050 Fie allo Sciliar
+39 0471 725 014
This boutique hotel is a designer hotel is in a 13th century building. This designer hotel has art covering the walls including a Picasso. There is an excellent restaurant (although the food is very slow coming out do the kitchen). Definitely book a table outside in the summer. There is a nice indoor/outdoor pool and a spa featuring hay baths and wine infused beauty products. I love this hotel.
FORESTERIA SEREGO ALIGHIERI
Via Giare 277,
37015 Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella
Tel: +39 045 7703622
This estate has 8 lovely apartments, Villa Serego Alighieri and the winery. It is owned by the 20th generation and direct descendant of Dante Alighieri who spent several years in exile in nearby Verona. Dante’s son, Pietro, purchased Casal dei Ronchi in Gargagnago in 1353. There is a wine shop where tastings of the Serego Alighieri and Masi wines are done. Tours of the winery are possible by appointment as are cooking classes.
TENUTA SAN LEONARDO
Località Borghetto all’Adige
38060, AVIO (Trento)
Tel: +39 0464 689 004
Visits by appointment.
Via Canova, 298
CASTELLO DI SPESSA
Via Spessa, 1
Capriva del Friuli
Tel: +39 0481 60445
Parts of the castle date back to 1200 but the part of the castle we stayed in was built in the 20th century. The castle has belonged to several nobles.
It has amazing banquet rooms suitable for a grand wedding and is surrounded by a beautiful park full of flowers and sculptures, an 18 hole golf course and the vineyards (their winery is called Pali). They also have three restaurants on the estate- la Tavernetta (also has rooms), la Hoteleria and La Boatina.
We had room 15 which is a 2,000 square foot 2 bedroom apartment perfect for families. The rooms are decorated in 18th century style.
Dolce e Salato
Piazza Luigi Calori 16/18,
40018 San Pietro in Casale
Borgo dei Conti
Strada Montepetriolo, 26
Boschetto Vecchio, Perugia
Tel: +39 075 600338