Forget Florence and pass on Rome…when it comes to food in Italy go straight to the source. The country’s thousand-year-old culinary traditions are best appreciated in the regions, and here, going north to south, are four of the peninsula’s best spots.
Bassano del Grappa (Veneto region)
Founded by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, the riverside town of Bassano del Grappa is a warren of narrow cobbled streets. This is the place to sip the strong, clear, grape-derived brandy called grappa. It’s a sophisticated, fragrant moonshine distilled from the left-over skins, seeds, and pulp of wine grapes. Normal grappa is aged for one year in steel vats, while the more refined riserva variety is aged for three years in oak barrels.
Nip into the Grapperia Nardini for a sampling session. It’s located at the end of the town’s covered wooden bridge. Nardini’s has been in business in this same spot since 1779 and is Italy’s oldest distillery. If you want to see the production process, grappa is made from October through May, so plan your visit for the colder-weather months. But don’t worry; the strong alcohol content of the grappa will help keep you warm!
Parma (Emilia Romagna region)
Proud and prosperous, Parma, with a population of 175,000, has a historic center sprinkled with pretty palaces and piazzas and a captivating cathedral as a central focal point. This is where you’ll find Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of grating cheeses, which is used to top pasta dishes worldwide. It’s still made using just milk, whey, and salt. The wheels of cheese are aged for a minimum of 12 months before being sent to markets around the globe.
The left-over whey from the cheese process is fed to the pigs that are destined to become the prized Prosciutto di Parma, a distinctive ham. A combination of salt, mountain air, and about 10 to 12 months of curing time produces a delicate meat that causes both Italians and foreigners alike to swoon.
The Consorzio di Formaggio organizes free tours of the area’s parmigiano factories. You need to reserve well in advance, but the guided tour can also include a trip to a dairy and one of the aging warehouses.
The Museo del Prosciutto in Langhirano, appropriately located in a former animal-market building, presents the process, from pig to prosciutto, with a tasting room where you can sample the precious pork for just $5.
Editor’s note: Italy’s other best food towns are shared in Valerie’s full article in the current issue of International Living, for subscribers only.