Thursday, November 23, 2023

Wine Touring in Italy

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for Italy.  Mention vacation in my family and I'm sure to say Italy.  There's something about the Italian land and the people and the wine and food that resonate with me...and with thousands of others as well.

When I was a boy, my mother worked for an Italian-American family that owned an Italian deli and sandwich shop in a suburb of south Philly.  Mom Lodise, the matriarch of the family, "adopted" my mother and me and between Mom Lodise and one of her daughters-in-law, my mom learned to cook Italian dishes like pasta e fagioli, sausages and peppers and long-simmered red sauce.  

I didn't know it then, but that exposure to the pleasures of Italy helped me build a lifetime love of all things Italian. 

While serving in the Air Force in Germany, in the early 1950s, a friend and I took a road trip to Italy. My Italian-American friend, Tom, from Queens, New York, and I drove as far south as Naples where I had my first taste of pizza and Campania red wine.  

We sampled the local wines, up and down the country, sometimes with food sometimes without food, in Capri, Naples, Rome, Pisa, Milan and at a roadside inn somewhere in the Alps between Austria and Genoa. 


Once we left Austria, Tom and I spent hours in my 1950 Chevy, twisting and turning on mountain roads, and we needed a break. As luck would have it, we saw a roadside inn and restaurant just ahead that looked like a good place for a pit stop and a meal. 

The innkeeper met us at the door, and in broken English, apologized that the restaurant was closed for the day, but beaming with pride, explained that he was having a wedding reception for a member of his family. Then, with open arms and a big smile, he graciously invited "our American friends," to join the festivities. 

My foggy memory is that we ate too much food, washed down by lots of local red wine, that I figured probably came from Lombardy or Piedmont.  And, though the inn was full with family, two small rooms were found, so we stayed the night. 

Good thing we did, because the following day, coming down the Italian side of the mountains, the brakes over heated and I lost pedal pressure, just managing to anxiously coast into an overlook. Stopping and starting, we eventually made it down, limping in to Milan where we found, of all things, a General Motors garage.  The mechanics were so excited to see an American GM car, they fixed the brakes free of charge and we were on our way south.

Great Red Wine of the South

I returned to Naples and Campania wine many years later, as a writer on a visit to Mastroberardino, at the family's earthquake battered winery in Atripalda, on the backside of Mount Vesuvius. As I turned on to Via Manfredi, it was clear the damage caused by the 1990 earthquake had tilted the dun-colored walls, causing them to lean precariously toward the street, propped up only with wooden braces.   

Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples

On the other side of the wall, Mastroberardino's winery appeared to be bustling and reassuring.

Antonio Mastroberardino, a quiet, studious man who spoke English with a gentle accent, introduced me to Walter, his brother and partner in the winery. Then,  Antonio and I adjorned to his office and library.

Antonio Mastroberardino's passion was to make wine from, what he called, "grapes of antiquity." The extensive collection of 19th century, and earlier, books and folios on grapes and Campania wine, fed his passion, mainly for ancient Greek and Roman varieties.

Mastroberardino's reputation, led by Antonio, for revitalizing the historic grapes of the Campania region, helped boost the popularity of the red Taurasi and two white wines: Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. Of the many unique Italian wines, those three from Mastroberardino stood out for their distinct personalities and flavors. 

My visit to Mastroberardino was an unforgettable and singular experience, an occasion to taste unique Campanian wines with the man considered indispensable in bringing wines of antiquity to today's wine consumer. 

Togetherness in Tuscany

Group vacations can be great fun or one of the most trying things you'll ever do.  One year, a group of friends, three couples with a link to Colorado, one couple from California, decided to rent a farmhouse in Tuscany. 

Our chosen destination was the Chianti Classico region, outside of Florence, where we settled in to a large farmhouse that was part of the Italian agriturismo, a program that offers the traveler an opportunity to participate in farming or just relax in a private room in a farm house or a separate building.  

But, who goes to Tuscany to relax?  Not us.  We were there to taste wine, eat Italian food and see the many sights of Florence.  Absorbing the architecture and art of Florence is a full-time undertaking and there are hundreds of guides to make sure you don't miss a thing. 

But, armed with a guide book, we headed out on our own to experience the riches of Florence, artifacts of the past that left a lasting personal impression: Michaelangelo's David in the Accademia Gallery, the Duomo cathedral, the Piazza delle Signoria, Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river, the stunning Uffizi Gallery art museum.  

Ponte Vecchio on the Arno

And, for an unusual wine experience, there was a buchette del vino, or "little wine hole," (the one at Osteria delle Brache is the oldest) a holdover from the Renaissance, where a glass of wine is passed through a small ornate "window" in the outside wall. 

Sated with food and wine, we still had room for a creamy gelato, so before heading back to the farmhouse each day, we stopped at Vivoli.

Counting off just a few of the many places to eat in Florence is not easy. There is no denying that you have to work hard to find a bad meal in Italy.  And we hit it lucky, finding a small trattoria, with the odd name of "Everest," in a small town, not far from the farmhouse. 

The food at Everest was local, tasty and filling, but what really impressed us was, in place of a wine list, there was a large table against one wall packed with bottles of Chianti Classico. No other wine, just Chianti Classico.  Walk over to the table, select the bottle you like, bring the bottle to your table to be opened and you pour the wine when you're ready. 

We liked Everest so much that we returned a few times that week, for more good Tuscan cooking and Chianti Classico wine. 

Other Tuscan food memories, that are still with me today, was walking into the nearby village, from the farmhouse, each morning for a slab of freshly baked warm aromatic foccacia; and the incredible hunks of roast pork between two slices of crusty bread we bought from a food truck parked on a narrow hillside road. 

But, finding a farmhouse with a large friendly kitchen in Chianti Classico, worked in our favor.  A day of sightseeing or visiting a winery or two would usually mean a few bottles of Chianti Classico came back with us. We had some aspiring chefs in our small group, so Chianti-fueled dinners were a relaxing way to end the day.  

 Vinitaly in Verona

The first time I went to Verona, was to attend Vinitaly, then the biggest show of Italian wine in the country and probably the world. Verona is a lovely city, on the Adige river, that reminded me of a smaller Florence, with its jewel box opera house, restored coliseum used today for outdoor entertainment, lots of excellent restaurants, and a number of nearby wine regions, like Soave and Valpolicella. 

Ponte Pietra on the Adige

Vinitaly, like its sister wine exhibition, Vinexpo, in Bordeaux, overflows with just about every Italian wine imaginable.  And, if you found yourself with an appetite,  there's an adjoining food fair, where I saw a mortadella the size of a tree trunk and a robust man wielding a knife almost as big as the meat roll, hacking off large chunks that he handed out to salivating attendees. 

On the first day of my two-day visit to Vinitaly, I just wandered around the hall, up and down the aisles, wondering how anyone could taste even a small number of the wines on display.  Large wineries, like Bola, had a big spacious booth, while small wineries, usually in a remote corner of the hall, were pouring unfamilar wines.  I sampled a selection of muscat dessert wines from Pantelleria, a small volcanic island near Sicily, and wondered why they were not in my local market.

Vinitaly is impresssive but it can be overwhelming.  So, I suggest a plan of what to taste, who to visit and what can be ignored.  Vinitaly 2024 will be held, March 31 and April 1-3.  Set your plan, then go to Verona and enjoy yourself.

Note.  The above wine tour of Italy is in place of "My California Wine Adventures," a continuing series of personal reflections that will cycle in now and then in the coming months.

Next blog: Muscadet

Leave a comment at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.