Bella Italia!

Villa view

Up at the villa, and I do mean UP!

Never have I struggled so much to put the lasting impressions of a trip down into words. Past attempts read like Ralphie in A Christmas Story writing his “theme”.

Let me just say that I get it. I now know why people dream of traveling to Italy. I now know why people dream of traveling to Italy, again. And again.

For starters, there’s just too much damn country. Even my intrepid Michelin road atlas, in all its blown up, page-by-page glory, failed to show more than the barest detail of the cities, towns and villages that make up the wonder that is Italy. You could spend weeks traveling from north to south, west to east and still only scratch the surface. And it’s tempting to try. We had ten days, so we wisely chose one region, Piedmont, with a celebratory, end-of-holiday super stopover in Rome.

When my friend asked me a year ago, “would you like one of the rooms in the Italian villa we booked?” my quick, not-even-consulting-the-husband answer was “absolutely!”

I live in an Italian neighborhood. I shop at an Italian grocery store, complete with nonnas that block the aisles with socializing, order their prosciutto at the deli in Italian and give the store managers shit if the produce isn’t up to snuff or the prices go up too much. Toronto has many fantastic Italian restaurants, at all price points. My burgeoning midriff provides testament to my empirical knowledge.

But, Ma-DON-na! It’s hard to be back after having a taste of the real place.

Some impressions:

In Piedmont, if you are in a hurry, you’re stuck on winding, hilly roads. So don’t bother being in a hurry, and give yourself lots of time to get places. You never know when a large herd of goats (and a sexy shirtless goatherder!) may just need to cross the road as part of their morning commute to different pastures.

Wine, cheese and salami are always the answer. So is a siesta.

Fast food just doesn’t exist, unless you count pizzerias. Which I don’t. It’s no wonder that the McDonald’s in Rome near the Spanish Steps inspired the Slow Food movement. It’s literally (and I do mean literally) the only McDonald’s I saw in my travels. Or any other chain, now that I think about it.

Happy memories:

The villa we stayed at, gorgeous in its website photos, was even more stunning in real life. We all spent time just staring into incredible views of hills and valleys – we were about 800 metres above sea level. We also had great weather the entire week, and spent most of it poolside when we weren’t exploring the area’s villages and towns.

We arranged for a chef to come to the villa to cook dinner one night – it ended up being a five-course homage to Piedmontese cooking, including vitello tonnato and beef braised in barolo, with a local wine paired to each course. We were all in heaven.

The chef also suggested contacting a local winery owner for a tour and wine tasting, which we did. Paolo Marengo and his family were extraordinary hosts. After a tour of the vineyards on a very hot day, Paolo suggested that we follow him to his winery to taste his wines and “have a little something to eat”. This was one of my first experiences with famous Italian generosity and understatement.  Our group was led to a beautiful room to sit at a long table containing large plates of salami, various cheeses, including the region’s robiola goat cheese, and wonderful deep-fried bread (the name escapes me, but asking what it was called prompted Paolo’s sister to come forth with even more baskets of it, which we ate too).

Paolo's vineyards

Paolo’s vineyards

As I was very hungry, I distinguished myself by impressing Paolo’s father and mother with my “buono appetito”. I count it as a proud moment in my life. I mean, how many people can say that they actually ate enough to satisfy an Italian host?

And the wine – oh the wine. I’m a huge fan of wine, maybe not super articulate when describing what I like about wine, but I love to drink it. Paolo’s wines were fantastic and we bought several bottles to enjoy back at the villa. We almost wept at the low prices and couldn’t stop comparing and speculating about how much they would cost in Ontario.

Risotto (Ristorante del Gavi)

Famous risotto made from 30-year-old recipe

The Piedmont region’s wines are starting to get more recognition, and their most famous wines include Barolo and Barbera, and we did our part to drink as many bottles as possible.

We also had a great time visiting the town of Gavi, where Ristorante Cantine del Gavi has been serving a simple but utterly divine risotto al gavi  for over thirty years. When they found out that we were visiting from Canada, they gave us a tour of their wine cellar, full of beautiful, old and in some cases, priceless bottles.

If you want to learn more about Piedmont and the city of Turin, I highly recommend this BBC documentary (1 hour duration).

As for Rome, countless people have already written about it, so I will go quickly here. We had a great, whirlwind long weekend and did some of the super touristy stuff; a tour of the Vatican and the Colosseum, wandered around to see the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and some pretty top-notch window shopping near our hotel.

Our favourite restaurants were Roscioli, Zoc and a little restaurant near the Vatican called La Fraschetta (Sotto Le Mura).

Quick travel tips:

Katie Parla’s website and app were tremendous Rome resources.

And I must give a shout-out to a little navigation app that I thanked aloud, sometimes hourly: Rego. It uses your phone’s gps so you don’t have to rely on a data plan to get oriented and find all the places you’ve researched.

Just another morning in paradise!

Just another morning in paradise!

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