Culinary tradition in Italy is stronger than law. Men have fought wars over salt trading and ports, organizations boycott fast food outposts that threaten their historic food ways, and the origins of winemaking, porchetta, and ingredients like chianina, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Piennolo tomatoes are so important that special designations and accreditations have been created to prove their quality and background.
Tasting these traditions on a recent, quick culinary tour through Northern Italy, we quickly realized that for chefs, restaurants, and the industry back in the United States, creation doesn’t need to mean dreaming up wholly modern revelations. There is still a lot to tap into in the origins of Italian cuisine.
It’s that solid foundation—the history of traditions and craftsmanship—that continues to make Italy such an intriguing country today. Sure, the traditional restaurants of yore still exist and are absolutely worth a visit. From the simply beautiful preparations at hillside getaway Villa Roncalli to the rich, silky porchetta sandwich at Er Buchetto, there is good reason travelers come to Italia for the classics.
But today’s chefs and wine makers are also building on those foundations, taking the country’s rich bounty of ingredients and products and creating something altogether new. Chef Cristina Bowerman has reinvigorated the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome with her Glass Hosteria (with dishes like veal tongue pastrami) and 2012 StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress presenter Davide Scabin’s vacuum-packed dried-pasta pizza literally shows how to take old-school tradition into the 21st century. And it’s not just chefs who are proving the worth of Italy’s culinary history. At both Frescobaldi and Arnaldo Caprai, wine is steeped in history of innovation and lessons learned over time, from Caprai’s use of the 400-year-old Sangrantino grape to Frescobaldi’s contemporary techniques.
Rather than looking to broad inspirations, or merely rehashing the staples of their culinary past, these leaders are bringing the Italian culinary guard into progression. They combine the best of both words: the proven lessons of their past and a growing modern Italian future. Dig into our culinary exploration, a combination of the country’s classic and modern offerings, and then join us in New York for the 7th Annual International Chefs Congress, where we will explore our theme, “Origins and Frontiers” on a global scale.
After working at several U.S. restaurants (including 2012 Rising Star Chef David Bull’s Driskill Grill), Chef Cristina Bowerman brings a global perspective to Rome’s Trastavere neighborhood with her Glass Hosteria. A menu of inventive, modern dishes melds the traditions of her southern Italian childhood with these worldly experiences. The restaurant’s neutral décor (tans, browns, and exposed brick) sets the perfect blank canvas for Bowerman’s contemporary plates.Recommended:
A marriage of Europe’s most renowned flavors, Enoteco Pinchiorri offers a refined menu thanks to French Chef Annie Féolde and Italians Italo Bassi and Riccardo Monco. The team has won numerous accolades, including Relais & Chateaux status, three Michelin stars, and a top spot in the “Best Restaurants in the World” list by Restaurant magazine. The versatile menu includes modern techniques (burrata fumé, basil sponge) paired with traditional Florentine flavors (Sicilian Scampi, Panzanella Salad), served inside a classically elegant dining room.Recommended:
For a taste of Rome’s old-school porchetta flavor, walk right up to Er Buchetto. The name translates to “hole in the wall,” and it’s fitting, as the family-operated sandwich shops offers only three tables and a limited menu. But the reason to go to this historical spot, originally opened in 1890, is for the classic Roman sandwich porchetta. Just make sure to check their hours—we stopped by twice before finally catching this local favorite when it was open.Recommended:
If you are traveling in Umbria, a trip to the medieval town of Castel Di Lago is a must. At Osteria dello Sportello Chefs Angelo Francucci and Sara Di Stefano create a traditional regional menu, using only products and produce from local farms and artisans. Don’t miss local specialties like the highly prized Chianina (white cattle).Recommended:
No visit to the charming Umbrian town of Montefalco is complete without a stop at the Arnaldo Caprai vineyard. Melding tradition with innovation, the team at Arnaldo Caprai is producing elegant, thoughtful wines, exclusively using Sangrantino grapes, a variety that has been grown in the region for more than 400 years. And at the vineyard’s restaurant, Chef Salvatore Denaro creates a tradiational Italian menu to compliment these wines, offering guests dishes like spicy Caponata of Melanzane and refreshing panzanella.Recommended:
Frescobaldi's impressive vineyards may be open only for private tours, but get a taste of their innovative wines at Dei Frescobaldi. Located in the heart of Florence, on the corner of Piazza Signora, the restaurant offers a relaxed environment and a complete portrait of the estate's wines. For the full experience, enjoy a Tuscan meal in the warm and cheerful restaurant, or relax inside the tapas-style bar in front.Recommended:
Hemingway didn’t stay at Hotel Locarno, but he may as well have. This Colonial-style hotel offers guests the same sophisticated turn-of-the century expat feel that many travelers continue to seek today. Decorated with period furniture, the spacious rooms offer marble bathrooms, and several have private balconies. With a great location near the Piazza del Popolo, you’re minutes away from Rome’s shopping districts. And while the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant, it does have the arguably best cocktail bar in Rome. Helmed by Mixologists Francesco Belei and Nicolas Pinna, you’ll find all the mixings here, including vintage barware and a top-notch drinks list.
Run by husband-wife duo Riccardo and Silvia Baracchi, a stay at Il Falconiere, a Relais & Chateaux property in the hillside of Cortona, is a page out of storybook Italy. Riccardo is in charge of winemaking on the property, making use of traditional Champagne methods for his Santa Maria Novella wine, while Silvia runs Il Ristorante, preparing an impressive one-Michelin-star menu of fresh, bold flavors. The property offers the calm, relaxing atmosphere of six acres of Tuscan hillsides, vineyards, olive groves, two swimming pools, and a health spa. And if the scenery (and wine tasting) isn’t enough, Il Falconiere offers a variety of airy, bright rooms, complete with luxurious linens and private bathrooms to tuck into after a long day.
Just steps away from Rome’s most conspicuous window into history (and a view not to be missed of the Coliseum), Palazzo Manfredi offers guests their own look into the past, seamlessly combining it’s (restored) 16th century hunting lodge exterior with modern Italian décor. Relax in the chic rooms, outfitted in plush velvet and leathers, or explore the city care of the hotel’s car service. And from a seat inside Aroma, with its postcard views and Old World feel, its easy to escape the buzz of Rome’s streets with Chef Giuseppe Di Iorio’s traditional Roman menu.
Sitting on a hill overlooking Florence, Villa San Michele offers visitors one of the best views in the city, overlooking the whole cityscape. A former 15th century monastery, the hotel provides 46 spacious rooms, lush rose gardens, a picturesque façade (attributed to Michelangelo), and a panoramic pool. Take a break from Florence’s shopping district and learn classic Florentine recipes in the hotel’s cooking school or enjoy dinner in the stunning dinner room setting of The Loggia Restaurant, courtesy of talented Chef Attilio De Fabrizio.
If you want the real off-the-beaten-path Italian experience, head to this Umbrian gem—if you can find it. Tucked away on a hillside in the ancient town of Foligno, Villa Roncalli offers both a beautiful villa-style guest house and a restaurant not to be missed. Helmed by Chefs Maria Luisa and Alessio Bonnucci, the soulful, earthy menu is comprised of local produce, much of it farmed on the property, and simple dishes that pop with fresh flavor.
Started 50 years ago by Enrico Cariani, Cariani Porchetta Umbra is an Umbrian family-owned company currently run by son Enrico Cariani. Tours of the factory show off the process: in order to make the best porchetta—which they sell to local shops and purveyors—the team uses only pigs bred in Umbria, 7- to 8 month-old porcine, 100 kilograms in weight. After the butchering process, the meat is rubbed with salt, pepper, rosemary, garlic, and wild fennel—the classic Umbrian seasonings—stuffed with liver, and cooked on a stainless steel pole in the oven until it reaches porchetta perfection.