This may be a children’s pizza-making class but Alessandro takes his mission seriously. I’m standing with my five-year old son next to the singeing heat of a 200 year-old pizza oven in Castello di Casole’s Pazzia restaurant and we watch as the Neapolitan chef produces a box of smooth dough balls he made the day before and left to prove.
Roughly half way between Florence and Siena, Castello di Casole is a magnificent Italian country estate. At its centre is an imposing, ochre-coloured castle flanked by gravel-edged lawns, roses and olive trees.
The castle was once home to the noble Bargagli family and, in the 1960s, to Italian film director Luchino Visconti. Having opened as a hotel in 2012, it’s now pitched at travellers in search of an unblemished version of la dolce vita. Run by the US-based Timbers Resorts, it has 41 rooms and suites within the castle and another 28 villas and farmhouses (rentable by the week) on the estate. Décor is tastefully restrained with beamed ceilings, antique furniture and traditional cotto floors.
As with any self-respecting Tuscan estate, this one comes with its own vineyard and olive groves, but the real showstopper is the hotel’s infinity pool with its mesmerising views over the undulating landscape. As dusk falls, most guests gravitate to the terrace above the pool, apertivo in hand, to watch the sun sink behind the hills.
If this all sounds a little theme-park-perfect, don’t be put off. There’s a seam of Italian authenticity running through the hotel, not least where food is concerned. As well as the Pazzia Restaurant, which serves traditional Italian dishes and homemade gelato as well as Alessandro’s expert pizzas, there is a more formal restaurant, Tosca, overseen by chef Daniele Sera; a standout of the four-course tasting menu was a delicate spinach and ricotta gnudi with tomato confit and light-as-air mozzarella foam.
More active gastronomic experiences are on offer, too. Guests can go truffle hunting, mushroom foraging, wine and olive oil tasting or pasta-making, while a sleek spa is housed in what was once the castle’s wine cellar. Back at our class our pizzas emerge blistering from the oven and we try the fruits of our labours. They’re so delicious that, two hours later, we’re back at one of Pazzia’s outdoor tables ordering another.»
Parma was recently named a UNESCO Creative City for Gastronomy and, at the city’s Borgo 20 restaurant, where prosciutto is served hung like silky delicates over a washing line, I discovered why. Parma ham must be air-dried for a minimum of 10-12 months to meet its PDO status. That’s the stuff you’ll find in UK supermarkets. But, after a couple more years, the flavour and texture of the ham changes dramatically. Eating this sweet, mature ham with my hands, body heat almost started to melt its buttery fat. Next came organic salad leaves topped with shavings of black truffle, then risotto with punchy parmesan, onyx balsamic and Parma’s other great fungi, sautéed porcinis. Glasses of Malvasia (a gently sparkling white made in the neighbouring hills) and a shot of Emilia-Romagna’s nocino, a bittersweet walnut liqueur, between each course.
Sweet tooth not quite satisfied, I took a post-lunch stroll, going hot at Cantarelli Caffe with a cup of pure molten chocolate, and cold at Le Gelateria where mountains of creamy, sticky gelato change with the seasons. I ordered a double scoop of sweet, earthy chestnut and carried on to two of the city’s best delis – La Prosciutteria and Salumeria Grisenti – to stock up on the spoils of northern Italy: cheese, bread, vinegar (Modena is close by), dried mushrooms, and, of course, salumi – coppa, lardo, Felino, pancetta and more.
For a Michelin-starred dinner, Parma is home to Al Tramezzo, but I was after the more rustic food the region is famous for so I headed 15km north of the city, to restaurant Al Vedel, for anolini (stuffed pasta parcels) in a capon broth. (Località Vedole 68, 0039 0521 816169) Next door, at sister business Podere Cadassa, the smell of hanging hams hits you as soon as you walk into this family-run salumeria. Various parts of the pig are put to use, but it’s the culatello di zibello that’s worth heading out of the city for. Pigs’ rumps, fattened in the valleys of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia, are seasoned with lambrusco and salt, bound into a pear shape with incredible speed by butchers Riccardo and Luciana and matured for 11-30 months (each bundle is knocked by hand to test for unusual sounds, like cheese). Creative gastronomy in action.
In my white Fiat 500, I snaked hungrily along the coast heading towards Gallipoli, and the southernmost tip of Italy. I had come to Puglia, the province that teeters in the heel of Italy, to explore its west coast. A rocky landscape beside the Ionian Sea, dotted with wild, remote beaches, I was also discovering that this affordable, sun-kissed region makes an excellent foodie road-trip. Starting my four-wheeled tour, first stop was the town of Porto Cesareo. Here, I walked along a powder-white beach before lunching on fresh mussels and clams, their salty juices soaked up by pieces of fried bread, at Trattoria al Gambero (19 Piazza Nazario Sauro, 00 39 0833 569 123). With a terrace overlooking the marina it was an ideal spot to enjoy a glass of the local rosé, made with Negroamaro grapes. Not for me, though; first, I had more driving to do.
The coast road leads south from here to Santa Maria al Bagno, a picturesque cove where I stopped for a mid-afternoon swim. At Bar La Pergola (lapergolasantamaria.com) I fuelled up with espresso and a pasticciotto, a shortcrust pastry filled with zesty lemon custard, before continuing on to Gallipoli.
The old town here is built around a medieval fort and positioned, neatly, on its own limestone island. Filled with lanes and churches made of pale Lecce stone, it’s an atmospheric place to be as the sun goes down, especially if you manage to grab a table at one of its outdoor bars. I made my way to the Buena Vista Cafe (127 Riviera Nazario Sauro, 00 39 0833 264 361) to join locals enjoying an Aperol spritz on a terrace looking out towards the tiny island of Sant’Andrea – and to plot the following day’s travels. One thing that was sure to be on my list was an early morning trip to Gallipoli’s fish market. One of Italy’s largest, it’s where locals and restaurant owners vie for that morning’s catch. »
Double rooms at Palazzo Zacheo cost from around €150, b&b. Return flights from Heathrow to Brindisi cost from £107 (alitalia.com). Car hire costs from around £37 a day (budget.com). More info: viaggiareinpuglia.it
Holidaying in a region brimming with markets, food shops and fabulous produce (in this case the Chianti area of Tuscany) demands self-catering, so my husband, son and I checked into L’Oliveta, a villa in Montebuoni. This old wine and olive oil-producing estate is now a sleepy hamlet of cottages and apartments that share a swimming pool and stunning views over Chianti. And, if L’Oliveta’s kitchen is anything to go on, its owners are foodies.
Here we found sharp knives, a decent set of pans and serving dishes, and three different pieces of coffee-making equipment: drip filter, moka pot and caffetière. Committed to putting the kitchen to the test, we bought homemade salumi – including tonno di Radda – and Martelli pasta at Casa Porciatti in Radda in Chianti, and an enormous bistecca fiorentina for the barbecue at Macelleria Falorni in Greve in Chianti.
On another day we ate out, visiting family-run La Grotta dell Rana in San Sano for pici – thick, bouncy spaghetti dressed with wild boar ragu – braised beef and panzanella. Drinking is, of course, another big attraction in Chianti, and a tour seemed the obvious way to acquaint ourselves with the local wines. We didn’t have far to go – a short walk across vineyards brought us to Casanuova di Ama where Daniella and Luciano make their own wine and olive oil on a small scale. After a brief but comprehensive introduction to Chianti wines, and a tour of the premises, we settled down to drink and eat.
Luciano cooked bruschetta over coals to go with Mattutino white table wine. Then came salumi, chicken liver dip served over a flame (one of those ugly recipes that tastes divine), roast peppers, cheese and lots of bread and crudités to go with Vespero vino da tavola before homemade biscuits and Il Rosignolo vin santo.
We loaded up with wine and a bottle of peppery olive oil to take home; I should mention that opting for carry-on luggage would be a mistake on a trip like this.
L’Oliveta sleeps four and rental costs from £498 per week. The closest airport to Montebuoni is Florence (Pisa and Siena are also nearby); return flights from Gatwick and Luton start at around £150 (vueling.com). More info: turismo.intoscana.it
In search of Rome’s best carbonara, we started at the top. Restaurant La Pergola in the city’s Cavalieri Hotel is much-loved for three things – its panoramic view of the city, its fêted chef, Heinz Beck, and its signature fagotelli la pergola, a riff on Rome’s most famous dish. In Beck’s version, little parcels of pasta are filled with cream and pecorino and served with a white wine, courgette and guanciale (cured pig cheek) sauce. This, along with a theatrical dessert – a cream-filled red fruit sphere and crystallised raspberries – was the highlight of a tasting menu deserving of its three-star Michelin status.
La Pergola’s location is another big tick. The huge outdoor pool here proved a big pull when temperatures hit 40 degrees on our early summer trip. What this family-friendly resort lacks in intimacy it makes up for with that pool, and quick and easy access to the city centre.
We tried our second carbonara in another prime foodie spot, the Campo di Fiori. At the spectacular food market here we browsed stalls piled with zucchini flowers, cherries and just-fragrant lemons before escaping the heat at Roscioli. Locals queuing to buy salumi and cheese at this busy deli and restaurant shot longing glances at our starters: buffalo mozzarella with anchovies, Sicilian-style caponata and fennel and celery salad with bottarga. Roscioli’s carbonara is made with farmer Paulo Parsi’s eggs (produced by leghorn chickens whose feed is laced with goat’s milk) and sprinkled with Malaysian black pepper.
Our final carbonara was the quirkiest. Metamorfosi, one of Rome’s more experimental restaurants, goes for the deconstructed: fried pasta rings and crisp pork rind (like the lightest pork scratchings you’ll ever eat) are dipped into pecorino foam under which is an egg cooked at 65 degrees, resulting in a unique, silky texture. Which was the best? Don’t make us choose.