All trips to Italy are eating trips, aren't they? It was going to be a leisurely time on La Bella Vita, a barge floating through the countryside Cole Porter wrote about in Kiss Me, Kate--Mantua, Padua, Venice. The itinerary promised historic buildings and art (some weeks, it's focused on golfing) but mostly, it was about a slow, indulgent pace.
Barges seldom take more than 20 guests, with a good ratio of crew to passengers. While cabins are quite small, there's plenty of lounge and sundeck space. La Bella Vita's entire upper deck was open-air for lounging. Aurelio, our dining steward, frequently popped up to offer beverages or a snack.
Gathering near the Venice airport, we were shuttled to the barge, docked in Mantua, the historic seat of the dukes of Gonzaga. The dukes couldn't have eaten any better than we did that night, with local dishes like the city's signature tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin, and sbrisolona, a crunchy, crumbly cake. Five courses, four wines. We all promised we would walk a lot for the rest of the voyage. And we did, touring in the mornings, returning for three-course lunches of more regional specialties, and lazing on the sundeck to watch the Po River.
One day, we visited a remarkable property, Dominio di Bagnoli, near Padua. We thought it was just a winery, but discovered a huge, beautiful farm with a dazzling kitchen garden that left us tasting figs from the tree, admiring handsome chickens, and discussing the vegetables, both familiar and un-, with the gardener. The wines are good, and the winery is open to the public--something European wineries have been much slower to do than American ones. There's a thousand years of history here, going from monks to the estate's own private airstrip.
Most of our meals were taken onboard, and our appreciation for Silvia, our chef, grew. The regional dishes kept coming, as though there were a dozen Italian grandmothers in the galley. Surprisingly little pasta, although we enjoyed a delicate lasagna that caused gasps, lightly sweet desserts and more than 20 kinds of cheese.
We spent our last 36 hours in Venice, docked on the Grand Canal, visiting the Rialto Market--full of seafood and vegetables and tourists, but still a living, important part of local food distribution. A mid-afternoon visit to the terrace of the Danieli Hotel brought a drink and a long, delighted look at the Venetian lagoon and Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore.
After the barge, we went to Rome for some free-lance eating (and more walking). We learned a lot on an Eating Italy Food Tour, four hours of tastings and lunch in Testaccio, perhaps Rome's foodiest neighborhood. Giolitti, our gelato stop, is owned by the fifth generation, and Volpetti, the food shop of dreams, let us taste 30-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Volpetti's cousin, around the corner, has a casual restaurant serving one of Rome's two styles of pizza. Their mouth-watering specialty is the daytime pizza, rectangular thick-crust, always sold by the slice. After 7 p.m., wood-burning ovens can be fired up and the crisp, even-thinner-than-St.-Louis-style crust pizzas bring Romans in droves to favored spots.
Two final don't-miss tips: When visiting the Pantheon, go to Tazza D'Oro, a busy coffee bar that's the gold standard for granita di caffe, frozen coffee served with lashings of whipped cream. Sit on the steps of the piazza's fountain and people watch. And be sure to eat at one of the restaurants in the old Jewish Ghetto. The food is a wonderful hybrid of kosher rules and Italian ingredients, its signature dish a crisp, flattened and deep-fried artichoke. The food is among the most exciting finds of Rome.
Just plan on walking a lot.
IF YOU GO:
La Bella Vita, European Waterways, gobarging.com
Eating Italy Food Tours, eatingitalyfoodtours.com
Dominio di Bagnoli, Piazza Maraconi 63, Bagnoli di Sopra, Padua, ildominiodibagnoli.it
Nibbling and Shopping:
Danieli Hotel, Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello, Venice, danielihotelvenice.com
Giolitti Gelatro, via Amerigo Vespucci 35, Rome (and there's a related one near the Pantheon)
E. Volpetti (cheese and specialty foods), via Marmorata 45, Rome, volpetti.com
Volpetti Piu (for pizza), via Alessandro Volta 8, Rome
Tazza d'Oro, via degli Orfani 84, Rome, tazzadorocoffeeshop.com