I'm on my way to Italy with two different groups. Often times on my tours I am asked by my clients what gifts are best to bring home for their food-loving friends. My answer depends on the district of the country in which the group is----each region has certain gourmet specialties. Below I’ve listed my recommendations beginning with Umbria and Tuscany as that’s where Wine-Knows has rented villas this June, however, I’ve added ideas for many other regions. My suggestions are based on the weight of the item, ease in packing it, perishability, and uniqueness.
~ Umbria is world famous for its black truffles. Truffle oil and truffle paste are great because they are not near as perishable as fresh truffles.
~ Nothing says Umbria like a piece of Deruta pottery for the kitchen. There are all sizes and shapes of these colorful ceramics available, many of which never make it to the export market.
Deruta's tempting wares
~ Vin Santo (a dessert wine often eaten with biscotti) is a Tuscan tradition. While available in the U.S., many of the boutique producers’ Vin Santo does not leave the country. As it is frequently packaged in half bottles, it can easily be brought home packed in your suitcase.
Biscotti, another Tuscan specialty, pairs beautifully with Vin Santo
~ Finocchiona salami is a specialty of the Chianti wine region. This savory deeply flavored salami is chocked full of local fennel.
~ The capitol of Italy’s gourmet cuisine, there’s a plethora of goodies to tempt you (e.g. home of Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamic Vinegar). Pasta attains true stardom in this region and you’ll see shapes and sizes that you’ll never see again. If packed between layers of clothes, a package of dry pasta weathers the journey home nicely.
Butterfly-shaped pasta in the colors of the Italian flag
~ Balsamic is in every grocery store these days, however, aged Balsamico is not. Pickup a small bottle of 20 or 30 year old rich, aromatic, syrupy Balsamic for drizzling back home on fruit dessert (or add it at the last moment to a savory sauce for major complexity).
~ Gigantic lemons are one of the hallmarks of the coast. While US customs forbids bringing them back, you can bring back a memory of them in the form of a kitchen towel, pot holder or even a small ceramic platter decorated by local artisans with colorful lemons. All are very abundant in shops.
When life gives you monstrous lemons, make limoncello
~ Superbly yummy San Marzano tomoatoes are grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvious which looms over the entire Amalfi Coast and Bay of Naples. Tomato paste (double or triple concentrations are the best) are fabulous gifts to bring home…I usually buy a dozen and stick one in to a hostess gift.
Paste comes in 3 strengths: regular (L), double (C), & triple (R)
~Capers are available in every province in Italy, however, the Sicilian varietal is the pinnacle. Dry-packaged in salt (which is rinsed before serving), these taste like no other caper you’ll ever have. They are expensive but worth every Euro.
Meaty, plump capers like you're never had before
~Bottarga is another Sicilian specialty. Somewhat like dried caviar, it is a salted and cured fish roe. Expensive, it is often added in small amounts to pasta dishes, although it can also be served on a crostini.
~ Northern Lombardy is home to polenta, risotto, Gorgonzola and Taleggio, all of which are widely available in the US. It is also home to mostarda, a heavenly savory fruit condiment somewhat like chutney. Served with meats or even cheeses, this labor-intensive delectable can make even the simplest dish into a masterpiece.
Mostarda made from plums, pears, peaches & apricots
~ Home to the Slow-Food movement, this northern most district that shares a border with France is one of my favorite for gourmet gifts. Piedmont is synonymous with the white truffle, the King of truffles. Truffle-centric gifts are everywhere from salami to truffle oil. Truffle shavers are also available in every shop.
White truffles are so expensive that they require a shaver to thinly slice them
~ If it’s not summer, than one of the best gifts to bring home from Piedmont is gianduja, the marriage of chocolate and hazelnut. Gianduja is an art-form here as exotic, imported cocoa beans are mixed with the smoky local hazelnut. (If it is summer, bring home just the unusually rich, and intense local hazelnuts).
A Italian marriage made in heaven