Friday, April 24, 2020

Italy’s Secret Seaside Villages

             Very near Portofino & Santa Margherita, Camogli is in another world

In keeping with April’s homage to Italy during its battle with Coronavirus, this is the final article in the blog series on Italy.  I’ve been somewhat hesitant to divulge these unspoiled gems in writing for fear these would become the next Cinque Terre.  But there’s never been a better time to share my private list.  Italy sorely needs travelers to replenish its devastated economy.

Each one of these villages are unspoiled by foreign tourists.  All are popular with Italians, but you’re likely to be the only American in town at several.  I’ll start in the north just south of Genoa and work my way down Italy’s western coast as it passes through Tuscany.  Next, will be a resort that’s a popular getaway spot for Rome---near the Amalfi Coast but a world away from the madding crowds.  Then, we’ll travel clear down to the toe of Italy, Calabria.  I’ll finish with a little treasure of a coastal spot on Italy’s east coast, near the heel of the country, Puglia.


Camogli is a real-deal fishing village where clothes are still hung out from balconies to dry
I found Camogli >40 years ago on a train ride down Italy’s western coast from Genoa to Rome.  My heart skipped a beat when the train passed through this stunning small village of brightly colored homes on the sea.  I vowed to return to it the following year---which I did, and have returned nearly 20 times.

In 1989 a landmark cookbook, Italy the Beautiful by Lorenza d’Medici, was published.  This large format coffee-table book had a drop-dead gorgeous photo on its cover---I recognized it immediately as Camogli.  I thought for sure than Camogli was a goner as the cookbook sold to foodies in the US like gelato on a hot summer’s day.  Not true.   Thankfully, Camogli is difficult to reach (most trains do not stop), so a car is required---and there is no place to park it!.  Moreover, Portofino and Santa Margherita (easily accessible) are nearby so most tourists past by charming Camogli.  Big mistake.

                      There’s no better place to stay in Camogli than Cenobio Dei Dogi

I’m going out on a limb here by also divulging my hotel in Camogli, Cenobio dei Dogi.  Once the summer home of the Genoa Governor, this understated four star property has the best position in town overlooking the miniature half-moon bay.  Don’t even think about getting a room without a seaview.


Castiglioncello is a Tuscan gem known only to Italians

I’ll drive miles to seek out the best gelato…that’s how I found Castiglioncello.  I had a group of Wine-Knows on the sea in Tuscany learning about the area’s Super-Tuscan wines.  I heard that Castiglioncello had one of the area’s best ice-cream makers so I took the group for the afternoon.  The gelato was good, but it was the village that everyone loved.  I’ve returned numerous times as it makes the perfect pre Wine-Knows spot to recover from jet lag, or the ideal spot to relax post tour.  (As the town is located just 30 miles south of Pisa, Pisa’s airport makes it easy to access.) 

 I snapped this photo of a picture advertising a villa for sale in a Castiglioncello real estate office

Castiglioncello is positioned on a pine forest promontory with hills that fall right down to the sea forming cliffs, little inlets and sandy beaches.  Homes are built among the pine trees giving it the feel of the pine-filled residential areas of Carmel.  There are only a handful of small hotels as the charming town is filled with vacation homes of inland Tuscans who escape here every summer to avoid the heat and crowds of tourists.   This is the place to rent a villa with friends, or a seaside home…and pretend you’re an Italian on holiday.


Sperlonga's ancient hilltop town is literally a movie set

I first learned of this Mediterranean stunner many years ago from a friend who used to live in Rome and frequently escaped here during the summer for a beach holiday. Sperlonga is halfway between Rome and the Amalfi coast, but a world away from both.  Sperlonga is so gorgeous that it has been used for many movie sets.  In fact, Italy’s popular television series Capri is not filmed on the island of Capri---it’s filmed in enchanting Sperlonga.

A nearly mile long dreamy beach awaits you in Sperlonga

Sperlonga has one of the best sandy beaches in all of Italy, but it also has a drop-dead dazzling medieval hilltop village.  For me, the best plan is to stay on the beach (love Hotel Aurora, a simple but charismatic family-owned hotel), and then walk to the old town nightly for dinner, or for a morning’s stroll and cappucino. 

Calabria's Tropea is for "those in the know"

Heading from Sperlonga south 300 miles along the sea we come to Italy’s province of Calabria, the toes of Italy’s boot.  One of this area’s most beautiful town’s is Tropea.   Known for its cliff-side old-town, 2.5 miles of pristine beaches, and its prized red onions, this gem should be on every Italy lover’s radar….thankfully, it’s not as it’s too far south and there are no major airports nearby.

                          The medieval town is filled with  a plethora of dining venues

Like Sperlonga, Tropea’s historic hilltop town is right out of a movie set.  Tropea, however, was a far richer and larger town in its maritime hey-day than simple small Sperlonga.   One could spend hours wandering Tropea’s historical center maze of cobblestoned, and pedestrian only streets lined with 17th and 18th century palaces.   Five star Villa Paola is a former monastery that has been converted into a magical 11 room hotel.

Polignano al Mare

 Covo dei Saraceni (left upper) is Polignano al Mare's best hotel 

I was first introduced to this charmer when I saw a one page photo of it in a travel article some 30 years ago.  It was so beautiful that I built an entire vacation in Italy’s fascinating area of Puglia around it.  I’ve been back a couple of times since and would jump at the chance to go again as Polignano by the sea is a special destination, spectacularly positioned on limestone cliffs filled with caves along its sea.

      Dinner in this grotto restaurant is one of the most magical settings I've ever experienced

Polignano’s picturesque historic center is a delight.  The town’s only entrance is through the Arco della Porta.  Enter and you find a magical center filled with architectural traces of the town’s Arab, Byzantine, Norman and Spanish past conquerors.  In addition, four of the watchtowers that once guarded the ancient sea town remain and add to the beguiling charm of a past era.

My favorite place to sleep in town is Covo dei Saraceni, a 4 star cliff-side hotel with a terrific view of the sea, and a great feel of the Italian dolce vita.

Viva Italia!!! 

Friday, April 17, 2020

How to Rent a Villa in Italy

Wine-Knows has rented this Lake Como villa for 2 weeks September 2020

This is the third in a series of articles on Italy to pay tribute to the country’s devastating battle with coronavirus.  Italy will not always be on lockdown, so supporting their economy will become critical once the country opens to visitors.  In today’s blog we’ll discuss how to rent an Italian vacation property.  Whether you’re planning a Mediterranean seaside holiday, a rustic Tuscan farmhouse escape, or are exploring a less known area such as the south’s Puglia, opting for a rental property has some serious advantages over a hotel.

A Wine-Knows dreamy villa on the Amalfi Coast

The benefits of renting a property over a hotel room seem intuitive:  more space, kitchen facilities, and privacy.   There are however, some disadvantages to consider such as no concierge to support you, no room-service, no restaurant on site, no gym.   One of the biggest disadvantages, however, is being disappointed with the rental which has been chosen based upon photos on some website.

Wine-Knows has rented twenty or so properties in Europe (many of them in Italy), and we always preview them in person before signing the contract.  We can’t stress enough that photos can be deceiving.  As an advance visit is not usually possible for most travelers, doing your due diligence by asking the right questions becomes even more paramount prior to signing anything.  Most travelers focus on the contract and the photos.  There are many items, however, that may not be covered by either.  The devil can be in the unspoken details.

Wine-Knows rented this stunning 10 bedroom villa in Umbria

Wine-Knows list for due diligence:

     1.  Rent from a company that has a proven track record (some examples include VRBO and Airbnb).

     2.  Read every single user review (properties are often listed on multiple sites, so read all of the reviews on all sites).

     3.  Ask not only the square footage , but also request the floorplan layout.  Layouts can be deal-breakers (e.g. no toilet on the main floor, or access to the terrace only through the master bedroom).

     4.  Get photos of every room.  Our experience has shown if there’s not a photo on the website, then that the room is questionable.  If a property owner/manager refuses to send a photo, scratch this home off your list.

This Tuscan seaside villa owned by royalty was rented by WineKnows

     5.  Find out exactly where the bathrooms are located.  If the property is advertised as 7 bedrooms/9 bathrooms, one often assumes each bedroom has an ensuite and that there are a couple extras.   Not true.  It’s not that unusual for a property to have only a few ensuites with the remaining bathrooms down the hall,  up or down a flight of stairs, or outside at the pool.

                                      Breakfast on our Venice apartment's deck was magic

     6.  Inquire if there is a professional manager.  More importantly, find out where the manager is located---a manager located an hour or two away can be problematic.  A manager who speaks some English is also imperative.  Last, if the manager has another full time job this can be an issue for obvious reason.

     7.  Ask the exact size of beds.  Europeans call different sized beds different names and there is no standardization.

A smashing 7 bedroom Italian villa rented by WineKnows on the Tuscan Coast

    8.  Inquire about parking details.  Even if you’re renting a small home for only a two persons, parking (or lack thereof) can make a huge difference.  Parking can become an even bigger issue  when renting larger properties where there will be multiple vehicles. 

    9.  To what floors does the elevator go?  Don’t assume that all floors can be reached by an elevator.

     10. Is the swimming pool heated?  If so, will the heating be on when you’re there?  Is there an additional charge for the heating?  What will it be?  Is pool maintenance included?

     11.  Are utilities included?   If not, what is a typical charge for your period of time?

     12.  What is the size of the refrigerator?  This may seem like a strange question, but if there will be more than two travelers (and you plan to cook), this is a legit concern.  Italians shop daily, therefore, their frigs are typically quite small.

The CEO of Benetton owns this fabulous Rome apartment Wine-Knows rented for a personal holiday

     13.  Inquire about laundry facilities.  First, where are they located?  (In many European homes they can be located in the kitchen!)  Also, dryers are not common in sunny Italy where hanging laundry to air dry is the norm.

     14.  How far is it to the nearest grocery, pharmacy, petrol station, or restaurant?  It goes without saying, access to services is important.

While the above list is daunting, it’s not meant to be so.  Renting a vacation property in Italy can be the memory of a lifetime.  Like anything in life, due diligence is required.   The rewards are the opportunity to experience Italy's la dolce vita in a more personal way.

Viva Italia!!!

Friday, April 10, 2020

3 Unknown Italian Wines You Should Know

Vermentino comes from exquisite Liguria
This is the second Blog paying tribute to Italy during its struggle with COVID-19.  Today’s article will discuss three grapes that are popular in Italy but relatively unknown to most Americans.  Because of their obscurity, however, they all are  great values.  Two are red wines and one is white.  Two are from Sicily, the other is from northern Italy.   All of them should definitely be on your radar screen for spring and summer wines as they are quite quaffable during warmer weather and pair well with foods typical of these two seasons.

First, let’s begin with Vermentino, the northern varietal and one of my personal favorites in all of Italy.   This way under-rated grape is grown primarily on the Ligurian coastline south of Genoa (e.g. Cinque Terre, Portofino and Santa Margherita), and the island of Sardinia also produces excellent Vermentino.   Think Sauvignon Blanc without the grass, but with some compelling added elements.  Vermentino offers luscious citrus mixed often with pear and white peach, mineral notes, floral scents, and almond nuances.   

Gnocchi & Vermentino:  a magical pairing in a magical country

Vermentino is magnifico both as an aperitivo as well as a wine to drink with dinner.  Its high acid structure allows it to work well with many foods.  My favorites are scallops in a caper/lemon sauce or plain grilled salmon, but a brined-then-grilled pork chop also works.   The wine also has enough structure to  pair with beloved Italian vegetables such as artichokes and arugula.  

Like Vermentino, Frappato is another bargain due to its undiscovered status in the USA.  Grown mainly in Sicily’s volcanic soils, this varietal offers an exciting opportunity to try a wine you don’t know.   Frapatto’s flavor profile is strawberries but there are also tastes of pomegranates and cloves.

                                    Frapatto is only one of Sicily's many charms

A low to moderate bodied red wine, Frapatto is an ideal choice for the lighter foods of spring and summer due to its muted tannin structure.    This wine is all about freshness, not power.   It’s an ideal red wine aperitif, but can pair equally well with tomato-sauced pastas, as well as grilled chicken or fish.

Nero d’Avola is another red from Italy’s far south, Sicily.   If you love full-bodied reds like Syrah or Cabernet, this varietal is for you.   Nero d’Avola is a powerhouse that delivers big gobs of black cherries with other flavors like licorice and even cigar-box hints.  Expect robust tannins and good levels of acidity.   Because of this, I would not suggest that it be served as an aperitif.

                                         Italy:  the world is praying for you

A bold wine, Nero d’Avola needs matched with equally bold food.   A grilled burger or steak would work beautifully, as would a pasta of Portobello mushrooms.  A pizza topped with spicy pork sausage, funghi porcini, grilled eggplant or roasted red peppers would be my nirvana for my pairing.

     I have a big amore for these three varietals.  I think you will, too.  All are available 
     in the US.

Viva Italia!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Italy's World-Class White Wines

                          Friuli-Venezia Giulia is positioned in Italy's top northeastern corner

In tribute to Italy’s dire situation with COVID-19, my Blogs for the entire month of April will be dedicated to Italia. Today’s article is devoted to the top white wine district in the country, Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  Located in Italy’s far northeastern corner, this magical wine area was once ruled by the Venetian Republic, as well as the former powerhouse Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  Today, it’s the perfect viticultural combination of both of these former rulers:  Italian passion meets Slavic grape varietals.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia produces world-class whites.  The region’s vineyard yields are among the lowest in Italy.  This is the result of Friuli’s quest for quality.  It’s also one of the reasons some of the gorgeous white wines are more expensive than other Italian white wines.  (BTW:  they are worth every Euro).  There are also some sleeper bargains that I have listed below. 

                       Friuli's terroir provides the perfect package for stunning whites

The area’s terroir is critical in making superior white wine.  Bordered on its north by the Alps, these mountains protect the wine region from the dramatic Austrian winter.  The Adriatic Sea frames it’s southeastern border and like all bodies of water, the sea helps moderate the climate.  Friuli’s summer weather is typically characterized with very warm days and chilly nights…perfect growing conditions for grapes to maintain a balance between acidity and ripe sugar levels.  Known as the “diurnal shift,” this significant swing between day and night-time temperatures is seen in every wine region of the world that makes complex wines.  Valley soils are well-drained alluvial matter that have been washed down from the Alps.  Friuli-Venezia Giulia also has rolling hills which enhance drainage.

White grape varieties are not typically seen outside of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  One of my favorites is Ribolla Gialla (ree-bowl-lah-jawl-lah).  These light-medium bodied wines offer seductive floral aromatics and a mineral-laced citrus palate, along with acidity to create the perfect food-friendly wine.  Friuliano is another varietal from this area.  These wines are fruit-driven with notes of nuts and citrus with a touch of minerality to complete the perfect sip.  There’s also Pinot Grigio, but don’t think for one moment that it’s not top notch.  Instead, think of complex tropical fruit layers and lingering finishes.

                                        A winemaking castle in Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Below are my suggestions for Friuli-Venezia Giulia that are available in the US:

  • Klet Brda “Bagueri” Ribolla Gialla:  $30
  • Gradis’Ciutta Gratins Collo Pinot Grigio:  a steal at $15
  • Vigne Zamo Vigne Cinquant’Anni Friuliano:  $35 & worth every penny
  • Torre Rosazza Pinot Grigio:  a bargain $19

Amore a Italia!