People often share their love of Italy with me, recalling their memories of Rome, Florence or Venice. Although these cities are beautiful, they also barely scratch the surface of what Italy has to offer.
n 2011 I partnered with my longtime mentor, Master Chef John Nocita, and the Italian Culinary Institute to launch the now annual Splendors of Italy tours. For the past seven years, we have led culinary and gastronomic tours through Italy’s two southernmost regions: Calabria and Sicily. Due to popular demand from previous travelers, we’re launching the new Splendors of Ancient Italy trip in October 2018. Beyond the tourist traps of the major cities is a nation brimming with endless regional culinary traditions ranging from the basic to the decadent. In the United States, menu references to “Italian food” erase the distinct regional influences found in a country where each area is known for a specific cuisine, and where each town or village may be famous for a locally grown ingredient, preparation, or a traditional dish that dates back centuries. One of the best ways to sample regional cuisine is to dine at an agriturismo, which is an independently-owned, sustainable property. For many people who travel with us on the Splendors of Italy tours, a leisurely afternoon eating lunch at an agriturismo is a bucket list culinary experience. Lunch is an understatement. A visit to an agriturismo means devoting three to four unforgettable hours to enjoy homegrown produce, savor still-warm house-made cheeses, taste regional dishes crafted from freshly made food products, nibbling on house-cured charcuterie, and of course, sharing wine with friends.
Over the years, agriturismi (plural for agriturismo) have become an important part of rural tourism in Italy because the properties offer both dining and housing accommodations, similar to a bed and breakfast. Many travelers choose to stay at an agriturismo because it offers a sustainable and authentic experience that also helps family farmers and supports the local economy. Some properties offer outdoor activities like horseback riding, more immersive projects such as spending part of the day working on the farm, or skill-building classes such as pasta-making.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, independent farming in Italy became less profitable, forcing many families to leave their land in search of a better livelihood. By 1985 Italian legislators developed an official agriturismo policy to incentivize farmers to consider new uses for their land, such as allowing farm stays by tourists. The policy also worked to revitalize rural areas throughout the country. In some cases opening an agriturismo allowed people to remain on land that may have been in their family for generations, while in other cases previously abandoned properties have been restored and given new life. While travelers may rightfully expect a rustic experience, some agriturismi have been remodeled to offer modern amenities such as swimming pools.
Agriturismi are first and foremost working farms, with people onsite tending to livestock, gardens and vineyards. In fact, legally, agriturismi must make more money from their farming than from their tourism, a policy that works to put the land and agricultural traditions first. For locals and travelers alike, the draw of dining at an agriturismo is that all of the food and beverage products you are served are grown, raised, produced and cooked on-site. Additionally, you may also be able to purchase farm products such as jams, olive oils, digestive liqueurs, cheeses and more.
Below, I share three of my favorite agriturismi located in Calabria, one of the southernmost regions in Italy. Although thousands of agriturismi can be found throughout the country, my heart always draws me back to the magical and unexplored region of Calabria.
Agriturismo La Sena
This secluded family-run property is emblematic of what makes Italy’s agriturismi a must for any gastronome. The property itself is well off the beaten path, tucked deep into a hillside with winding paths leading from gardens to pastures. Taking time to wander the grounds is a must. A short hike takes you to the top of the hillside where you can see out across the Italian countryside, feel the ocean breeze from the nearby Ionian Sea, and visit the maiali neri, Calabrian black pigs, which this agriturismo is known for raising.
There are so many reasons to love this property, but the food tops the list. Our meal began with plates overflowing with antipasti—the traditional first course in Italy—which included plump olives, cured meats, and an assortment of vegetables drizzled with deeply flavorful olive oil. Then came the fresh sheep’s milk cheese that was made two hours before our arrival. It was still warm, delicate in texture, and served with dabs of bright red marmalade made from sweet, spicy pepperoncini Calabrese. It was a perfect pairing.
Throughout the many courses of our meal we enjoyed a variety of handmade pastas, several freshly baked artisan breads, traditional vegetable dishes, an assortment of meats cooked to perfection, specialties found only in this area of the country, and more – and everything we ate was grown and produced by the family on the grounds of the agriturismo.
By the end of the meal the family displayed their homemade digestivo liqueurs for us to sample: limoncello and amaro. A disgestivo is an alcohol that is sipped after a meal to assist with digestion. As the name suggests, limoncello is a liqueur that has been flavored with lemons. Amaro is a bit different; the flavor is at once bitter, sweet, rich, and herbal. When you sip the amaro made at La Sena, you can even taste notes of the wild fennel that grows along the road leading to the farm.
A visit to Calabria isn’t complete without a visit to Agriturismo Donnastella. This stunning property is located across the street from the Ionia Sea, with its deep turquoise waters providing an unforgettable backdrop for dining in the restored rustic farmhouse, walking the grounds, or enjoying a tranquil moment in the gardens.
Donnastella prides itself on featuring “forgotten” recipes, going as far as to use “earthenware” bowls to ensure nothing alters the traditional Calabrian flavors. Each time I have dined at Donnastella I have been treated to regional pasta, parmigiana, soups made with vegetables and legumes, house-made cheeses, and an impressive assortment of pastries and desserts.
Aside from the food, another reason to love Donnastella is the property itself. This is an example of an agriturismo that operates in a renovated farmhouse, with many of the original architectural features carefully restored. Farm animals including pigs, donkeys, and chickens roam on the fields of the property, which are surrounded by olive trees and vineyards. With the Ionian Sea steps away, Donnastella’s location is one you’ll want to return to again and again.
Strada Comunale Costa Degli Aranci, 88060 Montauro CZ, Italy
Agriturismo Pietragrande is a unique farm property located ten minutes south of Calabria’s regional capital, the city of Catanzaro. Surrounded by green foliage, this agriturismo offers a relaxing environment—complete with a swimming pool and yoga classes—without losing sight of the rustic surroundings.
The ever-changing menu options reflect traditional ingredients but are executed using contemporary techniques and artistic plating. In this way, the kitchen is able to provide a more modern gastronomic experience, which can be a rare find in parts of Italy that value culinary customs over flashy trends. Here, the proprietors take a progressive approach to sustainability, are committed to using seasonal ingredients, and often feature organically grown produce from the property.