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olive’s 5 best Italian food trips of 2015

From feather-light Sardinian ravioli in Cagliari to a masterclass in orecchiette-rolling in Puglia, helping with the grape harvest in Tuscany and a tour of Roman street eats, here are 5 of the best foodie trips we took across Italy in 2015

Cagliari

Before you head for the white sands of Sardinia’s beach-blessed coastline, pause in its overlooked capital and enjoy its culture and distinctive Italian island cuisine. The best place to view Cagliari’s elegant Mediterranean-backed sprawl is from the hilltop Castello district, set around the city’s massive medieval ramparts. Castello’s cobbled streets are the best place to find a hotel for the night, too.

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Close by, and near the city’s excellent archaeological museum and impressive Roman amphitheatre, B&B Ferone 1947 has three immaculate rooms, with plush Egyptian cotton sheets, elegant earthy colours and free WiFi.

A short, panoramic, walk away lies one of Cagliari’s most atmospheric restaurants, Su Tzilleri ‘e Su Doge (Via San Croce, 3; 00 39 327 154 2216). Come here for farmhouse décor and casalinga-style Sardinian cooking: octopus stews rich with summer tomatoes, and feather-light, handmade culurjones de patate (Sardinian ravioli with beef ragu).

Post dinner drinks? Head next door for a glass of (slightly effervescent) local vermentino at lively Caffè Libarium, whose terrace has cracking views over city and sea.

Take one of Castello’s little glass elevators down the hillside to the Marina neighbourhood for an exemplary blood orange gelato at Stefino (Via Giovanni Maria Dettori). Or try Dulcis, a boutique deli, for traditional Sardinian treats, such as bite-sized pardulas (cakes with ricotta and lemon), aperitivi and beautifully-crafted mini panini.

For proper dining in this happening district, Prinicipi di Dan serves simple, ancient Sardinian specialities. Try local, salumi, smoked cheeses and fish served on wooden talleri (cutting boards), plus an excellent selection of cannonau (the local name for the grenache grape), including the lambrusco-style baloi brut, served chilled; distinctive, summery and utterly satisfying. Just like Cagliari itself.

Double rooms at B&B Ferone 1947 cost from €70 per night, including breakfast. Return flights from Stansted to Cagliari cost from £60 (easyJet.com). More info: sardegnaturismo.it


Puglia

Borgo Egnazia, or ‘village Egnazia’, is quite literally that: an Apulian-inspired network of little streets and piazzas that lead to villas, restaurants, swimming pools, spas, gardens and golf courses. It’s a self-contained bubble of luxury, built entirely from tactile tuff stone. Despite its size, the entire complex exudes a zen-like atmosphere that we found very difficult to leave.

Try a café leccese on your arrival, an ice-cold Puglian pick-me-up made from local almond milk and espresso. The bar, just behind Due Camini, is romantically lit with log fires and lanterns, and staff are faultless – detecting a sore throat, one barman invented a fiery, medicinal cocktail just for us.   

Food is also a priority, with six restaurants on site that honour Puglian cuisine – timeless, simple, thrifty food. From grilled octopus at the sophisticated Due Camini, where vaulted white ceilings twinkle with illuminated glass bottles, to a relaxed buffet at La Fresca, rustic orecchiette or pizza at Mia Cucina and fresh seafood at beachside restaurant Pescheria da Vito, it’s easy to stay within the Borgo walls all week. Not a bad idea, given the unfaltering quality of food and somewhat uninspiring immediate surroundings of the resort (if you’ve got a car, it’s worth visiting the charming whitewashed town of Ostuni half an hour away).

There’s such stylish uniformity here – every space adheres to the same clean, tuff-stone scheme. Our bedroom looked as if it had been carved from a giant salt block and was speckled with touches of rural romance (there are baskets of almonds everywhere). Enjoy your own disco with the myriad lighting options, unwind in the so-big-we-could-live-there bathroom or relax on your private terrace. You can choose from four types of hotel room, five apartments or six villas – all luxurious, and all within easy reach of a swimming pool. Our room – a ‘splendida’ in the main building – was plenty big enough despite being a cheaper option.

In between all that relaxing, try one of Borgo Egnazia’s ‘Nowhere Else Academies’ – a five-day long masterclass in everything from photography to fishing. We opted for a cookery class, led by enthusiastic Domenico, and took lessons every morning at Mia Cucina restaurant. Whether we were cooking pizzas in wood-fired ovens, rolling orecchiette or peeling tiger prawns, the approach was hands-on and fun; and tasting-as-you-go is pretty much mandatory when Domenico’s in charge. Of course, you get to eat what you make afterwards – have what you can’t manage as room service later on in the day (the kitchens keeps any leftovers warm for you).

Double rooms at Borgo Egnazia start from €134, b&b (borgoegnazia.com). Return flights from London Stansted to Bari cost from £282 (alitalia.com). More info: viaggiareinpuglia.it


Basilicata

Have you ever eaten a wild hyacinth bulb? Bittersweet lampascioni are a homegrown delicacy at Francis Ford Coppola’s Italian hotel in the sleepy hilltop town of Bernalda. Palazzo Margherita’s daily-changing menu is a tribute to fresh local produce, with the treasured, shallot-like lampascioni served alongside lamb and buttery potatoes in a bread-covered terracotta pot. Other highlights are artichoke salad and broccoli rabe orechiette topped with crisp breadcrumbs. Make sure to leave room for tiramisud, the chef’s ‘southern’ take on the classic Italian dessert: a contrast of dense, coffee-soaked sourdough bread and ricotta.

Choose where to eat according to your mood: a sophisticated Baroque dining room, an open kitchen for a rustic family feel, or a candlelit dinner in a garden hideaway. Or have a picnic made up for you on a nearby beach (they’ll add in a catch of the day spaghetti). 

Wander into town and stand at the bar, Italian-style, at Pasticceria del Corso for an espresso and a scorzetta (crumbly almond biscuits topped with smooth dark chocolate). Alternatively you might want to relax under the pink parasols of Azimut Café sipping on a lemon granita made to order from the owner’s lemon trees (Corso Umberto 1; 00 39 328 811 1756).

For a more rural experience, the hotel can arrange for you to spend a day at a local farm in the Agri river valley. You can learn to make plaited mozzarella from scratch and pizza in its ancient oven (pizza dough rolled with pork fat is amazing, as the lard miraculously turns into crisp pockets in the oven) then reap the rewards of your morning’s work with a homemade Italian banquet in the Masseria farmhouse – no lampascioni this time, but wispy, locally-foraged wild asparagus. 

Double rooms at Palazzo Margherita cost from €380. Return flights from Stansted to Bari cost from around £60 (ryanair.com). More info: discoverbasilicata.com


Rome

Demand for more affordable dining options has brought delicious changes to the city’s food scene, not least a growing number of venues providing high-quality street food. At Trapizzino, which opened in Testaccio in May, thick and spongy pizza corners are toasted, sliced open and filled with spoonfuls of hearty Roman dishes like oxtail stew, braised beef, aubergine parmigiana and meatballs (from €3.50). In April, beloved local chef Arcangelo Dandini launched Supplizio in the Centro Storico. Here, in a space that resembles a Renaissance lounge, he serves supplì (fried rice balls), crochette (potato croquettes) and crema fritta (fried pastry cream) from around €3 – a fraction of their cost at his restaurant, L’Arcangelo.

A short stroll away, Forno Campo de’ Fiori makes a supremely seasonal sandwich, available only from August to early October, called pizza con prosciutto e fichi – flatbread filled with ripe figs and sliced prosciutto, or head to historic bakery Antico Forno Roscioli (Via dei Chiavari 34), where pizza con la mortazza (mortadella-filled flatbread) is an inexpensive sandwich served year-round.

Across the river in Prati, porchetta (deboned roast pork) sandwiches, are the specialty at Birra e Porchetta (Via Ciro Menotti 32) and the pizza con la porchetta (roast pork filled flatbread) from Panificio Bonci (Via Trionfale 36) has to be the city’s most satisfying street-food bite.

Return flights to Rome Ciampino from a range of UK airports start from around £45 (Ryanair.com). Double rooms at B&B Cristiana cost from €80.


Tuscany

‘Salute!’ I raise a glass of red to the sea of tanned faces, each fresh from working in the vineyards of Il Borro Estate in Tuscany. Bottles of the estate’s wines are plonked on long make-shift banqueting tables under white parasols, and a huge porchetta crackles away on a BBQ set up next to vines of San Giovese grapes ready to be harvested for the next vintage. Sounds like the ultimate ‘dolce vita’ cliché? Agreed. But there’s graft involved too, if you want it. Every September, guests at Il Borro can take part in the wine harvest and feast alongside the workers and owners (the glamorous Ferragamo family) at this 800-hectare estate.

We opt to help pick the grapes and are rewarded with the banquet of porchetta, served with crisp brittle-like crackling, Italian meats, cheeses and a concoction of skin-on tomatoes, olive oil and garlic soaked up by whole loaves of bread and then mashed up into papa pomodori – proper ‘cocina toscana’. Dessert is a refreshing slice of watermelon and a glass of crisp Lamelle Chardonnay, eaten on seats of scattered hay bails while enjoying views across the vineyards in a fuzzy wine, food and sun-soaked bliss. A quick wave goodbye to the full-time labourers and it’s time to head back up to the hotel – set in the remains of a medieval village in the centre of the estate in Valdarno valley, a wilder, more rustic corner of Tuscany.

Il Borro is a true working estate, as we witness during a tour of the grounds. Grapes are harvested entirely by hand and taken to the winery where we watch in awe as a laser camera selects grapes at lightning speed. The unique terroir of the estate, with its varying rocky, sandy and clay soils, makes perfect growing conditions for Syrah to make Pian di Nova, San Giovese to make Polissena and Merlot to make the Il Borro signature blend. This unique climate and soil isn’t solely reserved for wine – 700 olive trees provide oil, and fields of buckwheat are a playground for honeybees, who repay the hospitality by creating a unique bittersweet, slightly spicy honey. Hectare after hectare of organic tomato vines, courgettes, pumpkins, green beans and melons provide the hotel’s three-floored Osteria and Tuscan bistro (and chef Andrea Campani) with the ultimate kitchen garden.

Theatrical sliding glass doors separate the prepping space from the light and airy dining room with its soft, beige furnishings, wooden floors and beamed ceiling. Stand-out dishes from the modern-yet-rustic Tuscan menu include salmon with finely sliced avocado, fennel and pineapple (trust us on that one), cod blanched in water on a bed of onion and then slow-cooked overnight and finely diced root vegetable panzanella with soft tuna and swordfish carpaccio. Tomatoes five ways makes the most of outstanding produce – quince-textured romano tomato jelly, garlic, oil and basil infused camino and an intense puree, garnished with fresh tomato slices. Dessert meets expectations, too, with a chocolate trio of sorbet, flourless chocolate cake with rum jelly and a chocolate mousse made with dark chocolate from Brazil and Venezuela.

Toiling among the vines means there’s plenty of excuse for indulging over breakfast, too. While we’re not generally fans of buffet breakfasts, the one at Il Borro is exceptional, so abundant that sweet and savoury options are housed in separate rooms. Finocchiona and parma ham sit alongside whipped ricotta, grilled organic vegetables and streaky bacon. Freshly baked cakes include yogurt and blueberry and crisp mini pastries. Naturally sweet orange juice is available alongside prosecco and espressos, cappuccinos or macchiatos offer a different type of buzz.

For more of a countryside experience, the hotel has several ‘farmhouses’ available as guest suites – albeit farmhouses that come with infinity pools, vine-covered terraces and dining rooms where you can whip up your own meals from the veg and eggs in Il Borro’s organic produce boxes (top up with a trip to Arezzo market). We stayed closer to the restaurant in one of the village cottages, enjoying the character of its small wooden-shuttered windows and stone floors.

And if grape-picking sounds too much like hard work, you can always do a few lengths of the hotel’s infinity pool before rewarding yourself with an al fresco lunch at the poolside VinCafe. We recommend a spread of mozzarella, prosciutto and homegrown melon, Il Borro honey with walnuts and pecorino, and plenty more crisp, grapefruity Chardonnay, all enjoyed with that backdrop of pretty terracotta roofs and wild, rustic Tuscan greenery.

Double rooms at Il Borro start from €320, room only (ilborro.it). Return flights from London Heathrow to Bologna cost from £300 (britishairways.com). 


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