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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

OCFoodieGirl in Southern Italy

Every time someone has asked me how my recent trip to Italy was, my response has been the same - "MAGICAL"

I have been wanting to go on one of Chef Mark McDonald's Splendors of Italy trips for years but I don't typically do 'guided' tours as I prefer to not be on someone else's agenda or time frame. However, this tour appealed to me as this was not only a culinary and wine oriented tour, but also included some unique places and experiences. What also appealed to me was the passion with which Chef Mark McDonald, owner and Executive Chef of Old Vine Cafe, spoke about his tours. Chef McDonald actually honed his culinary skills in Italy long before he offered these tours. Realizing what a diamond in the rough Southern Italy is, he realized there was something special about this part of Italy that he had to share with others. When I asked Chef McDonald what his dream job was, he said he was already doing it by running the Splendors of Italy tours. 

Originally I was really excited about going on the Northern Italy tour and when the itinerary for the fall tour was changed to "Ancient Italy" in the south, I wasn't quite sure what to expect as I didn't have much first hand knowledge about Southern Italy nor the cities on the itinerary. Having been to Italy before and visited the majority of the popular cities in areas north, I was originally expecting Southern Italy to be somewhat similar.  I'm quite happy to report that I couldn't have been more wrong. I never knew places like this existed in Italy - cities where time has literally stood still, and great care has been put into keeping it that way.  I feel like I spent the entire tour with my jaw on the floor in awe! 

While every city was unique, I have to say there was one commonality - the friendly locals who aren't quite yet jaded from being overrun by tourists. I know it doesn't sound like much but everyone I encountered in Southern Italy was beyond helpful, kind and friendly to this non-Italian speaking, painfully obviously American girl. Even while waiting in line at the airport to check my bags the gentleman from Calabria in front of me turned around and introduced himself and his sister to me, while asking me how I liked his lovely part of the world. 

As for the food, well what can I say. If the people and places in Southern Italy are as authentic as they come you can only imagine the food! It doesn't hurt that the Splendors of Italy tours are run in coordination with Chef John Nocita, owner of the Italian Culinary Institute. 

Even with the amazing food and experiences, I have to say the one of best parts of this tour was most definitely the people. I don't know if we got lucky or if the Splendors of Italy tours always attract such great folks but we had a group of 21 who were all so welcoming of each other and open to experiencing everything together with strangers who quickly became great friends.  I have to commend Chef Mark and Chef Nocita who along with their staff put on a seamless experience for all of us. 

The Splendors of Italy tours doesn't advertise beyond the local level as there's really no need. Their tours fill up with mostly Southern California locals who hear about the tour either at the restaurant or through word of mouth from a friend. Currently the Splendors of Italy does two tours per year - both to Southern Italy but with different itineraries. I would HIGHLY recommend this tour to anyone looking for a unique experience exploring authentic Southern Italy combined with a one of a kind epicurean experience. 

The next tour is scheduled for March 2019 and you can find more info on it here:  

For those who'd like to see more of my experiences in detail I've broken down the tour through my eyes below, by day. 

Day 1 Calabria

The beautiful Calabrian coast as seen from the Culinary Institute...
Upon arriving in Calabria, we were shuttled to the B'aia del Este hotel which is also the home of the Italian Culinary Institute. 

After dropping off our bags, we were greeted at the Culinary Institute with an amazing welcome dinner! 

It was the perfect introduction to our time here and to our two hosts, Chef Mark McDonald and Chef John Nocita. 

The dinner also introduced us to what we could expect in terms of food. Regional dishes meticulously prepared with the freshest ingredients and paired with local wines that brought out the nuances in the dishes. It was an amazing meal that stayed in all of our minds as we fell asleep our first night listening to the waves outside our bedrooms on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. 

Day 2 Calabria and Soverato

Our morning started with a visit to the local mercatini (a.k.a. market) at Soverato, a local town in Calabria. The market was reminiscent of an american farmer's market with open air stalls selling every regional items from fresh cheese to local spices and flowers. 

It was quite fun exploring all the stalls and seeing vegetables and fruits we'd never seen before. The vendors were also more than lovely towards us even 
though we didn't speak a lick 
of Italian, and they no English. 

The friendly vendors at the mercetini...

Next on the agenda was a cooking demo back at the Italian Culinary Institute. Demo also means we get to eat what we see being cooked which is the best kind of demo in my book. ;) 
Chef Nocita showing us how it's done...

What we also found fascinating is that many of the fresh items we had just seen at the mercatini that morning were used in the dishes we were about to cook/eat. Doesn't get much closer to farm to table than this folks! Our lunch/cooking menu consisted of the following: 

Sardelli con Crostini - crostini w baby sardines in a spicy sauce w ricotta cheese

Orichette Rape Pomodoro - orichette pasta w tomatoes and brocoli rabe tossed w garlic olive oil

Pesto alla Genovese - handmade fusili pasta w pesto sauce

Gambancello con Polenta e Tartufo (rolled beef with polenta and black truffle) 

Pistachio Salato Gelato con Salsa Dolce - salted pistachio gelato w a sweet sauce 

After some free time, we headed into the nearby town of Catanzaro to Fazzarri's for apertivo hour! Apertivo Hour is the Italian version of Happy Hour in that it's small bites of food with drinks. It's very popular with the younger crowd in Italy as it's a cheap way to get lots of food for a low price. Basically, you buy your drinks and a buffet of food is included. 

Truthfully, after our amazing cooking class I wasn't very hungry but upon seeing the vast array of food that included arancini, italian cheeses and charcuterie, flatbreads and so many other options, it was VERY hard to resist at least not trying some of the options. ;)  

Day 3 Tropea

Oh Tropea, such a lovely tucked away little town... 

We started our visit here with lunch at the beautiful La Pergola, a charming restaurant just outside the historic center. Situated under a giant pergola covered with grapevines we were served a fabulous feast of local delicacies. 

 The restaurant itself had a distinct feel of authenticity and you could tell this was a place frequented more by locals than tourists. While we were there, there was even a family of 8 or so celebrating their Italian grandfather's 90th birthday. Even though they spoke no English and most of us very little Italian, it was still fun to celebrate and clap for him when he blew out his cake. It seemed to make him very happy to have all the added attention of our table.  The food at La Pergola was phenomenal with the standouts being for me the lemon swordfish with olive oil. One of the last dishes we had and I was so full that I shared my portion with a friend, but even so it was cooked perfectly and so fresh that it tasted like it had just been fished out of the water that morning. 

We also go to try the fabulous Tropea onions, a variety of sweet red onions cooked down to a mild flavor with a little olive oil and salt. Lovely to eat by themselves or as a nice addition to the fresh seafood that we were served as part of our lunch.   

Tropea itself was just gorgeous! Apparently, Tropea is where the Italians, and other Europeans, go to vacation as it's quite the summer hot spot. It's rare to hear an American accent here as was evident by how few other ones we saw while touring the town. Situated on a cliff facing the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Gulf of Saint Euphemia, it is still part of Calabria although it seems like worlds away from the other parts we visited with its romantic settings and turquoise waters. We saw many weddings while walking around the historic center, and it's quite obvious why so many couples choose this romantic town as their wedding background.  

Adjacent to the infamous Tropea Beach, is the Santa Maria dell'Isola Church - which looks more like a castle than a church, but it striking just the same. Tropea dates back to ancient Roman times, and is mentioned in many ancient Roman manuscripts.  

We had a fun afternoon exploring the town while taking in the history and the sheer beauty of Tropea. Every corner you turn there are beautiful vistas awaiting your camera. There are also many fun little shops selling local Tropea wares of which include pottery, shells, local liqueurs and food, etc. 

After returning from Tropea, we were treated to a wine pairing dinner at the Culinary Institute. 
The menu was as follows: 

Pasta con Seppioline e Finochchietto

Mista di Pesce
Branzino, Gamberone, Polipo
Salsa Peperone Affumicato e Olio al Caiale per Branzino, Salsa Verde per Gamerone, Salsa Cannelini per Polip
Peperoncini Ripieni 
Formaggi Buffet a Tavalo
Semifreddo alle Mandorle Tostate ed Amaretto
Panna Montata al Ameretto, Ameretti Crumble
Paninin allo Zafferano
Panini al Nero di Seppia
Focaccia Genovese

Day 4 & 5 Matera 

Day 4 started with a few hours drive to the ancient city of Matera. Upon arrival, we were treated to a long lunch at Osteria Belvedere al Vechhio Frantoio, one of Matera's ancient caves that have been turned into a restaurants. The tour group jokingly called this the "never-ending lunch" because every time we thought it was done another dish would come out! 

It was very unique having lunch in a cave as you could see where it was carved out, and knowing how old the caves are we couldn't help but be entranced with our first introduction to Matera. 

Matera is the closest to living history I’ve ever felt. Located in the Basilicata region of Italy, the sassi area of Matera is a city of ancient cave dwellings carved into the mountainside. It is a Unesco Wold Heritage Site and the 3rd oldest city in the world, only behind Jericho and Aleppo. Inhabitants were removed from these Paleolithic caves about 80 years ago due to poor living conditions as the caves had no running water nor electricity. The area has since been lovingly restored and preserved with museums, accommodations and restaurants. Even so the vast majority of it remains untouched w the ability to walk into an ancient cave in it’s original state.

It is the 2019 European Capital of Culture City of the year - which means the tourists will flock here next year. I feel blessed to be able to visit now before the influx. Side note: “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson in 2004 and more recently “Wonder Woman” in 2017 were filmed here.

While in Matera, out tour group was split into groups to stay in different Bed and Breakfasts, as there are no hotels in the Sassi. We were all put into cave rooms - which was such a treat! The caves had all the amenties of current hotels - wifi, heat, etc. but still retain the original cave charm. It was quite a thrill knowing that a family lived in my room as far back as the 10th millennium B.C.

We had a free day to explore Matera on our own, and spent it visiting some of the Casa Grotto's - which are cave museums restored back to the way they were before the inhabitants were removed. 

It was fascinating to see the town as it used to be with churches, business and homes carved out of the stone. We also took a guided tour who showed us many sights we wouldn't have otherwise noted. 

If you visit Matera, Ihighly suggest you hire a tour guide as you'll miss many things on your own if not. It was actually pouring rain this day and it was quite an adventure walking through the city as the majority of the sassi is stairs and slopes.

We spent our last evening having dinner at a newly opened restaurant, Vitantonio Lombardo. I read about VL online as the Chef/Owner had recently left his Michelin starred restaurant in neighboring Puglia to return to his home region of Basilcata to open a restaurant. 

First off, seeing as Matera is an ancient cave city where everything in the Sassi section is built into the existing caves. Vitantonio Lombardo is no exception BUT what they have done to this cave is unlike any other I saw! It is absolutely gorgeous -- retaining it's cave-ness of course but the space it stunning.

The meal... well, the meal was ridiculously delicious and presented in Michelin quality form, of course. The plating was sheer perfection, the service was top notch and the food itself was delicious and creative. We loved every minute of it!

The Chef and staff were also incredibly gracious and kind, coming out to greet us as well as giving us a tour of the kitchen. 

Since being back I recently heard they were awarded a Michelin star in November - the FIRST in Matera and the only one in Basilcata. What an achievement! I HIGHLY recommend you visit if you find yourself in Matera - although it may be a smidge harder to get a reservation now that Michelin has acknowledged them!

Day 6 & 7 Bari

The next day we headed south to the lovely seaside town of Bari in Puglia, with a stop at the gorgeous Li Veli Winery.  Highlighting the region’s native varietals, Masseria Liveli produces elegant full-bodied wines that rival those of any region in Italy . You can actually find their wines locally in California, including at Old Vine Cafe.

Here, we were treated to a light lunch paired with Li Veli's wonderful wines, along with a grand tour of the vineyards. It was all topped off with a visit to the rooftop for the mile-long views.

In Bari we stayed at the centrally located Oriente Hotel - walking distance to everything in Bari. Bari is the second largest city in Southern Italy, and has someone for everyone from top notch shopping to an ancient old town with historic churches and castles.

Tomb of Saint Nicolas...

We had a free day while here which my friends and I spent touring the gorgeous Basilica di San Nicola, where the tomb of Saint Nicolas (yes, of Santa Claus fame) is located.

We also visited the Bari Cathedral and the ancient Roman ruins. Bari is so old that layers of ancient cities lie underneath the old part of the City, and have been discovered in some cases almost undisturbed. 

To be honest, the most fun part about Bari was walking around the old town as it's seems untouched by time. People still live here in tiny homes that look like storefronts, and live simple lives. 

One of my favorite things in Bari was also the Lungomare, aka the waterfront with its candy cane sunsets - it made for some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

We enjoyed several meals in Bari but my favorite food here was actually the gelato at Antica Gelateria Gentile in the old town.

Yes, there is a gelato place on every corner in Italy but have they all been there since 1880?! Me thinks not! ;) 

This place was amazing - the flavors and the combinations they have on the menu. You definitely want to sit down at the tables in front and enjoy your gelato in no rush.  It's a very popular place as all the tour groups stop to get samples here but they do a good job of keeping them to the side so as to not interfere with the sitting patrons. A MUST visit if you come to Bari!

Day 8  Alberobello & Calabria

On our trip back to the Culinary Institute in Calabria, we stopped in the fairytale-like town of Alberobello in Puglia. 

Comprised of the cutest cone roof shaped homes called trullis, Alberobello dates back to the 15th Century when the Count who owned the land required the peasants to build their houses without the use of mortar so they built them w stacked stone and the iconic cone roofs topped w an ornate pinnacle. 

They really are quite a sight to see and it’s incredibly amazing a town like this continues to exist in today’s day and age. 

Granted, many of them have been converted to shops and restaurants but it’s still a fascinating place to visit. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Sight so should definitily be on your agenda if you visit Puglia.  

After spending time exploring Alerberobello, we then enjoyed lunch with our tour group in an actual trulli.  Made for a fun and unique meal!

After a little down time back at the hotel, we later ended the evening at a local favorite restaurant, Al Fondaco. Here, we were treated to an authentic Calabrian feast where we tried all the local specialties. 

One thing about this tour is you'll NEVER be hungry as the food is abundant, and then some! 

Day 9 Calabria

Our final day started out with a visit to the beautiful Statti Winery. Here, we were treated to an up close view of seeing how Olive Oil is made and for a guided wine tasting of their fabulous wines. 

Statti is one gorgeous property, with tons of olive trees and views for miles - both of which make for quite the stunning photo backdrop. 

I especially loved seeing the olive oil process. While I’ve been to many wineries I’ve never been to an olive oil farm before - simply fascinating to see the olives go from growing on trees to being pressed into olive oil and then tasting it freshly made.

They also took us on a tour of the full wine facilities including the authentic wine caves.

The afternoon at Statti ended with an educational guided wine tasting of their different varietals and blends. 

The wines were truly fabulous and it was nice that we were given the opportunity to purchase them, as well as their wonderful olive oil, before leaving the estate. 

Happy wine tasters...

We ended our final day with a festive pizza party with the Chefs back at the Institute. They guided us on the use of an authentic wood fired oven and hand tossed pizza, then we each got to try our hand at it. 

Everyone did a fabulous job and we basically all went to bed with full and happy bellys on our last night! 

The trip really exceeded my expectations in every way. I saw things I would've never seen on my own, tried local and authentic foods that I would've been hard pressed to discover by myself, and met a great group of folks that I now consider friends. 

My only advice if you're considering going on the Splendors of Ancient Italy Tour is just do it. Don't even think twice, just go! You won't regret it and I guarantee you'll come away feeling like it was as "magical" as I did. :)

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