Everyone loves the food in Italy and there may be no better time to sample it than winter when the crowds are gone.
Hotel rates in cities like Venice are more $50 less in winter, according to Trivago, which tracks hotel rates around the globe. The average rate in Rome between November and January is just $137, Trivago says -- significantly cheaper than Paris or London.
Another plus: You won’t bust your budget on meals, nor will haughty waiters make you feel like you don’t belong. You won’t go wrong either with a crusty baguette, salami and cheese for lunch.
Don’t be shy about sharing portions — Italian meals can have several courses with large portions starting with an appetizer, a “primo” that’s a pasta or soup, followed by a “secondo” main course -- a meat, fish or chicken dish — and desert. Make your pasta your main dish; skip desert for a gelato shop.
Ask locals you meet — the taxi driver, the tour guide, the front desk clerk--for their suggestions. Check out websites like Home Food, EatWith or Meal Sharing, which connects locals who want to invite visitors for a typical meal.
I discovered on a recent trip, you won’t go wrong with house wines either. But whenever and wherever you go in Italy, make sure to sample local and regional specialties. I asked Italian foodie Luisa Castiglione, who travels the country overseeing her villa rental company, for some advice.
Obviously, if you are in Venice, you’ll eat seafood. Try something you’ve never seen before—maybe cuttlefish or pan fried sardines. Venice is also famous for fried fish. We also had fun at little wine bars where we had the Venetian version of tapas—little toast with various toppings.
Want a spritz? That’s the popular red aperitif you’ll see people drinking everywhere. It’s made with white wine, seltzer and usually Aperol. I admit I wasn’t a fan and usually stuck to wine.
If you love wine, you might want to visit the hill towns south of Turin famous for Barolo or, of course, chianti. Go where your favorite wines are made—pinot grigio in the Trentino region, for example, chardonnay in Lombardy near Milan or Puglia in the South. I usually don’t like lambrusco sparkling wine but loved the locally-made version outside the Renaissance town of Mantua in Grazie. (See what I wrote about our visit.)
Expect most pizza to have a thin crust. Modern pizza was of course invented in Naples but you’ll find all variations everywhere in Italy. Pizza Margherita, people believe, was invented in Naples as a tribute to Queen Margherita who loved the pie made in the colors of the Italian flag — red (the tomato), green (basil) and white (mozzarella cheese). I think the best pizza I’ve ever had was in Naples; it would be fun to rank your pizza and gelatos during your trip. Where did you find the best ever?
Have you tried risotto? It’s a delicious north Italian rice dish cooked in broth until it’s creamy. It can be very rich—lots of butter. In the fall, have Risotto alla Milanese cooked with saffron, suggests Castiglioni. You’ll find every variety of risotto—with seafood, vegetables, sausage.
How about pumpkin-filled ravioli? That’s a specialty in Mantua and Bologna and it was one of my favorites on a recent trip. If you like filled pastas like tortellini and ravioli, you’ll love this region.
In Tuscany, you’ll want to try Pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup) that people eat hot or at room temperature. There’s also stewed beef with pepper and garlic that, the story goes, dates back to the 15th century when Florence’s famous cathedral was being built and the workers making the terracotta tiles used one side of the oven to stew their meat — in wine of course.
In Rome, try Artichokes Roman Style -- stuffed with bread, garlic, parsley, Romano cheese and oregano.
There’s only one downside — coming home five pounds heavier. Good thing you’ll be doing so much walking on your trip.
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.