Italian Lakes in September

I posted this in another place but thought it also sensible to see what The Onion’s thought…

I am starting to plan a trip to northern Italy in late September (after the local school holidays) and would like some advice o the itinerary.

We are looking to eat well (obviously) and our goal it to eat classic Italian food. Our preference is simple local (slow) food, cooking where the ingredients shine, with flavour preferred to presentation i.e. the essence of Italian cuisine. We are four adults who do eat anything and drink everything but we are budget conscious and prefer value rather than “spending to be seen”.

The current plan is to fly into Milan then head for Turin, then head out to explore Piedmont, probably heading to Alba. After that we will head to the lakes for a week or so before dropping down to Bologna and looping back to Milan for the last night. Maybe we will stop over in Verona, Modena, and Parma but I feel the best food experiences are going to be in the countryside rather than big cities (am I correct?)

My questions:

  1. Any thoughts on the towns/villages we should target based on their proximity to good food and wine?

  2. Recommendations for good restaurants, accomodation (not too grand) or agriturismo’s?

  3. Is Osterie d’Italia a reliable guide?

Thanks in anticipation.

How long is your trip in total? You have a lot of destinations listed. On trips like yours, less can be more in terms of destinations in order to immerse yourself in the local culture and minimize travel time. Personally, I would spend more than one night in Milan, it is a fabulous city.

It doesn’t sound like the type of place you are looking for, but if you want to drool and get very excited for your trip, watch Episode 1 of Chef’s Table on Nexflix. The subject is Massimo Bottura and Osteria Francescana.

We will be in Italy for about 14 days, and I agree, less is more, that’s why I have Verona etc as maybe’s.

I have visited Milan quite a few times on business and it didn’t do a lot for me - that said business trips are never comparable to vacations. I did have a memorable meal in a little, almost secret, restaurant which was behind a bus garage in Milan - no idea of the name of the place but it was a favourite of a local colleague.

I love the idea of Osteria Francescana but my partner has banned restaurant pilgrimages this trip with the treat of a big shopping trip to the temples of fashion excess in Milan if I do.

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Not necessarily. Hostaria Giusti in the center of Modena is a really wonderful, delicious place to have lunch and eat Modenese food. Certain food experiences that are important to the culture of Torino (i.e., chocolate, gelato, the cocktail hour) are better or at least the equal of what you find in the countryside as an experience of these things. And of course it’s a 2-way street.

Depends on what kind of food experience you personally enjoy most. If you want what gets the official imprimatur of “slow food” from the Slow Food editors, you can easily plan an entire trip around eating in places listd in the Osterie d’Italia, so long as you understand why the place received the Slow Food stamp of approval (not always obvious, alas) and are aware that many slow food ingredients will be out of season when you are in the neighborhood. (Fresh white truffles jump out as missing in action in September in the Piemonte.

But it is also the case for the Piemonte countryside that many of the countryside restaurants that are responsible for making Piemonte an internationa eating destination are fairly high-end, and have at least one and maybe 2 Michelin stars. When people sing to the heavens about the Piemonte countryside villages giving them their best food experiences in all of Italy, they are often talking about these higher-end restaurants primarily, and only a smattering of homier trattorie. The food is local at the high end restaurants for sure, and many of the dishes are very old school seasonal classics. But these restaurants are definitely also offering their own chef’s creations, and using very modern restaurant techniques and presentation, offering a mainly “urbane” experience, despite the chalkboard menu, the clods of dirt in the driveway and the vinyard views.

Anyway, you get the picture. I don’t know any way around putting a lot of advance thought into what you want to taste in September and how you want to pace your restaurant eating, and then finding restaurants to suit, or creating meals from the market purchases (some very good eating in Bologna that way). I also think it is quite reasonable to give equal or even greater weight to what you want to experience culturally of northern Italy apart from food, and then think about how much of a mood-killer it might be to travel to remote places or rather down-at-the-heel places without view or bright decor to eat the “recommended meal”. Sometimes if you make a lot of effort to get to some very scenic place in Italy like the lakes, the merely decent restaurant with a famously mesmerizing view is more to the point than historically correct trattoria food off the tour bus parking lot – even if it is overpriced, as the Italians on TripAdvisor will be sure to howl at you.

If you are eating meals in Piemonte countryside with the idea you will drinking more than one glass of strong red wine, best to try to stay within walking or taxi distance, and leave the car parked for the night.

If Garda is on your lakes list, may I suggest staying at Sirmione. Lovely little town. With the 1* La Rucola. And we had an absolutely fab tasting menu lunch at La Speranzina.

We were staying on the other side of the lake at Bardolino and got the ferry over. We stayed at Parc Germano, a few minutes walk into town. It was fine, if a little pricy. As for restaurants there, most of pretty touristy, unsurprisingly. But, I can thoroughly recommend Il Giardino delle Esperidi (Michelin Guide listed), Al Capitel, Al Commercio (one of the few place sin town serving horse and donkey - can recommend the “Spag Donk”). We also liked Biri, but you need to pick through the menu to find the non-touristy dishes, of which there are several.

(Comments based on our trip in 2012)

Thank you - Very good advice - makes a lot of sense and is much appreciated. I really agree with your thoughts about getting the balance right between enjoying the place as much as enjoying the food.

Thanks John - I can’t wait to confront our friends with the Spag Donk…!

Ht, I get what you are saying . For myself I enjoy exploring , lost and enjoying the language and life of the people . I’ll never forget walking through the streets of Sorrento and down to the marina at four am . The town is slowly awakening , the sounds , smells , and sight . The food just comes to you . Anyway I’m not into the so called best of . Whatever that is . Recommendations bore me .

The best part of a trip to Venice was waking up before dawn (the benefits of jet lag from Aus) and wandering the streets in the pre dawn light. It was capped off with a couple of coffees and pastries in the “bus stop” cafe by the Rialto bridge with the city workers snatching their morning shots. Recommended by any guidebook - no. Culinary fireworks - no. But a memorable breakfast - definitely.

Theses days the Internet driven FOMO would have me poring over websites for the top breakfast experience and the result would be missing out on what makes travel special.

But that said its about getting the balance right and getting good advice to unearth a few gems…does John’s Spag Donk count…?

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Link to my Chowhound Bardolino reviews :-1:

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It’s been quite a few years since I took a trip to Lake Como, but I do remember quite a few low-key, lovely
restaurants that were in Cernobbio. We stayed in that town and walked down the road a bit for a lunch at the Villa D’Este. I seem to recall
that the views were better than the food, but it was a fun experience.

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