Tag Archives: cooking

This Is How You Get that Dream Cooking Vacation in Italy

Most travelers who think about taking a cooking vacation in Italy automatically start looking for a cooking school—meaning that, for a week or so, they’ll head to one spot and take lessons from the same team in the same place each day. But that is not the best recipe for success. There’s a much smarter way.

For years, my mom had been dreaming of a cooking vacation in Italy, so when a window opened up for the two of us to do it together as a mother-daughter trip, I was determined that it not only be special and delicious, but that it exceed her expectations. My first step: Filling out the trip request form for Maria Gabriella Landers, one of the Italy travel specialists on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts.

Right in our initial conversation, Maria disabused us of the misconception that we should base ourselves in a major city like Rome or Florence and spend the week in classes. Why sleep in the same hotel every night, spend your days in an institutional kitchen, and take limited day trips, when you can turn your entire vacation into a moving culinary education instead, with a different kitchen, different view, different local chefs, and different delicious lessons every day? In the end, Maria arranged an ongoing feast for us that we’ll keep talking about, and using recipes from, forever.

Here are seven benefits to skipping school and indulging in a mobile culinary trip instead:

1. You cook in real people’s kitchens.

Tony taught us his family’s meatball recipe as we cooked in his home kitchen with him and his daughter.

Over the course of our ten-day trip, we spent time in a variety of charming kitchens with fascinating locals, each of whom made us feel like family by the time we hugged and said good-bye, stuffed and happy. We cooked in:

  • a suburban family home in Pompeii with lifelong resident Tony, who grew up around the ruins where his father owned a food stand (now run by his brother) and who shared his family recipe for meatballs.
  • an agriturismo outside Montefalco in Umbria, where owner-chef Giuseppe and his wife taught us how to make cheese ravioli from scratch, zucchini tarts, and molten chocolate mini cakes.
  • a centuries-old organic family farm near Spoleto with Ettore and his wife, Lorella, who showed us how to make the best vegetable-laden tomato sauce, handmade gnocchi, and tarts with lemon-scented crust called crostata (which are now a regular dessert at our own family’s holiday meals). Afterward, we sat in their dining room and feasted all together, drizzling olive oil from their own trees onto our bread.
  • a glamorous farm-to-table B&B with an acclaimed chef who picked ingredients right from her garden and seemed to have an endless menu of desserts for us to prepare and then gobble down.

We cooked a pasta feast in a centuries-old family farmhouse with husband and wife Ettore and Lorella. Here my mom is preparing some vegetables for the sauce.

Ettore showed us how to make fresh gnocchi dough that we later replicated easily at home. So good!

Maria also arranged:

•one gelato-making night at the happiest ice cream shop I’ve ever seen (where the owner, Ricardo, let us taste every single flavor in the store)

•two walking food tours of Rome and Naples, to taste each city’s signature snacks

•visits to a goat cheese and wine farm, a vineyard, a chocolate factory, and an olive oil mill

These were more than hands-on experiences. They were extended opportunities to get to know people, to talk and laugh with them, and to learn about their lives and share about ours.

2. You meet local people and get to know them and their friends and families.

That’s us with Tony’s stepson, who runs a cheese shop a few blocks away. We ate mozzarella cheese he’d made that morning!

Every time we cooked, we didn’t only meet the chef. We met husbands, wives, daughters, sons, and friends, sometimes because they were helping us out and other times because they stopped by in the regular course of their day. At Giuseppe’s agriturismo, his wife joined us in the kitchen, and we met his son later in the day. And at Tony’s, not only did we meet his daughter who helped us prepare her mother’s family-famous meatballs (mom was away visiting her own mother), but we also walked into town to visit the cheese shop that Tony’s stepson owns and we got to taste mozzarella he’d made that morning. Then, when we drove over to the Pompeii ruins, where Tony is a professional guide, we had the chance to meet his mom and his brother, who now runs the stand formerly run by his dad.

Giuseppe’s kitchen was a lively, fun place to be. His wife helped us prepare our lunch, and a few of his staff pitched in to make us feel welcome too. That’s my mom pressing pasta for ravioli.

And at the newly opened Amandola Gelateria in Foligno, where we donned fedoras and aprons like the rest of the smiling staff as we crafted ice cream with the freshest ingredients with owner-chef Ricardo, we also met his wife, some neighborhood locals who seem to use the shop as their regular hangout, and a master gelato maker who was visiting Ricardo (a master in his own right) to brainstorm new flavors and recipes.

3. You learn about local culinary traditions.

The bread in Umbria is never made with salt. It gets all its flavor from natural ingredients and that delicious “new” olive oil.

By cooking with real people, we were clued into regional tastes—like when we baked bread with Giuseppe and learned why Umbrians never add salt to their loaves. According to local legend, it’s a tradition that began in the Middle Ages when a pope imposed a salt tax as part of an effort to limit Perugia’s autonomy. The locals rebelled by simply not buying any, and to this day, you can still taste their independent streak in the unsalted bread on every family’s table. You won’t miss the salt, though, because Umbria’s olive oil is so unbelievably delicious—another culinary tradition you won’t experience the same way in a school. My favorite “lesson” was about a type of olive oil I’d never heard of: new olive oil.

It’s the most recently pressed olive oil possible, basically fresh off the tree. And early November is the season for it. Around this time every year, everyone in Umbria harvests their olives. (And everyone in Umbria has olive trees on their property—that’s just the way it is.) For the best flavor, those olives must be pressed into oil within 48 hours. Once the oil is extracted, big containers of it are stored in cellars and then siphoned off into smaller bottles for use throughout the year.

We saw how olives are pressed into oil at a local mill run by two sisters. The area residents lug in their hand-picked olives and then wait around as the fruit is transformed into oil.

Because our timing was perfect, we got to taste many different family olive oils as we visited our different kitchens and restaurants, and I fell in love with the fresh, grassy and almost garlicky flavor that is worlds away from the stuff we buy here at home. And because she saw that I was so interested in this unique local tradition, our guide Cristina arranged, on the spur of the moment, for us to visit a family-run olive mill one afternoon. We got a tour from one of the sisters while half a dozen area residents were hanging out inside, waiting for their oil to be finished. (We learned that Umbrians are vigilant about watching their oil being pressed, to ensure that their olives don’t get mistaken for someone else’s. They are protective!)

4. The ingredients are as fresh as they come.

We got a behind-the-scenes tour with Diego Calcabrina, one half of the brother duo that runs a biodynamic wine and goat-cheese farm.

In addition to tasting each family’s personal new olive oil, we sampled vegetables from their own gardens, cheese from goats down the road, wine from their neighbors’ grapes, and fruit from their orchards. In fact, at Villa Roncalli, Chef Luisa walked out to her field directly before meeting us and picked what looked best to her, then we prepared a vegetable risotto and an egg dish with herbs and greens. On another day, after a tour of Calcabrina wine and cheese farm—run by two brothers who pick all their grapes by hand, make only single-blend wines, and don’t use any antibiotics for their cheese—we went to their restaurant to taste their wares. Not 20 minutes prior, we had been petting their goats.

Then we sampled the wine…

…and the cheese.

And moments like that were in addition to the steady stream of local wine and olive oil with every meal—meaning, wine from grapes picked in fields we’d passed and oil from olive trees in our hosts’ backyards.

5. You can customize the menus for likes, dislikes, and restrictions.

At Ettore and Lorella’s farmhouse, we adjusted his family’s go-to tomato sauce recipe to leave out the meat—just look at all those vegetables!

When the cooking experience is private and informal, as ours were, the menu can be customized however you need it to be. My mother and I each have several food allergies and restrictions. Maria collected our big list of prohibited ingredients, and not only did she make it work, but she and our hosts also made sure it was all delicious. What impressed me even more was how everyone handled the fact that I’m vegetarian but my mom enjoys meat and fish. In most cases that meant our hosts planned two entrées, or two sauces. My mom never felt that she had to give anything up, and I never felt that the veggie option was an afterthought.

Chef Luisa of Villa Roncalli picked these greens from her garden right before we arrived…

And then we made this delicious egg-vegetable dish—a cross between a scramble and a frittata, and incredibly delicious.

And because I like dessert, we made a ton of it. This was a delicate coffee-sambuca cake we made with Chef Luisa. I was skeptical because I don’t love licorice, but I learned to trust the chef: The combination of flavors was perfect.

Amandola Gelateria

We also got to customize our gelato! These are the three flavors we made with Ricardo at Amandola Gelateria: Nutella with candied almond crunch, natural pistachio, and clementine (from fresh clementines we cut and juiced ourselves!).

6. You can truly replicate the recipes at home.

My mom and I loved the jam-filled, lemon-crusted crostata that we made with Ettore and Lorella so much that we baked them at home for Thanksgiving. My mom also made them for a party with her friends.

They are now a Cohen dessert staple.

Culinary schools sometimes have specialty ingredients and professional machines—things you would never have in your own home. But on our trip, we worked with what people had in their kitchens—normal ingredients and gadgets. In fact, my mom and I were able to use what we learned to prepare a special Italian Thanksgiving feast a few weeks after we got home. And even though we didn’t have fresh Umbrian tomatoes from Luisa’s garden or Lorella’s jam from her orchard, we did have a canister of olive oil from Ettore’s farm, and it all turned out pretty close to what we’d eaten in Italy. (Pro tip: After a cooking vacation, invite friends and family over to share what you’ve learned. It’s a fun way to relive the trip and to share the spoils with those who couldn’t join you.)

7. You make true friends.

Something magical happens when you cook and dine with someone in their own home — you laugh, you share stories, and you make true friends.

A culinary school instructor may end up being an inspiration, but it’s unlikely they will become your friend. However, when you cook with people in their homes, when they show you their favorite recipes, when you sit down at the table with them and pass around delicious food that you all made together over laughter and conversation, you can’t help but feel affection for one another.

There is just something magical that happens while you chat and laugh with new friends in the kitchen and toast each other over a good meal. Yes, my mother and I came away with wonderful recipes and memories, but it was that authentic connection with warm, welcoming people that really satisfied us—something I think all travelers are hungry for. And if you get to mix up a little handmade gelato for dessert, well that’s just a bonus.

Ricardo is my new best friend and favorite person in the world. Did I mention he let us taste every gelato flavor in the shop? There were about 30.

Billie used Wendy’s WOW List system to plan this trip. She received a discounted media rate, but in keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, coverage was not guaranteed and remained at our editorial discretion. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Maria Gabriella Landers here. And, lest you think Billie received special treatment, you can read additional reviews of Maria’s trips, written by other WOW List travelers, here.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Billie’s Travel Highlights from 2017

Whether I’m traveling solo or with family or friends, my favorite travel memories are always about the people I meet. I was really fortunate to have had so many of those in 2017—made possible through a combination of travel planners who had deep roots in the places I was visiting, excellent local guides who knew how to remove that often-awkward barrier between the visitor and the visited, and my own tendency to strike up conversations with anyone and everyone around me. Below are just a few of the special moments I got to experience in 2017. Here’s hoping that my trips inspire ideas for your own adventures in the coming year. I worked with a few of our WOW Listers to plan parts of these trips, so contact us through Ask Wendy if you want more information on how to make them happen for yourself.

Meeting camel traders in Pushkar, India

traders buy a camel at the Pushkar Camel Fair in India

These men were shopping for camels.

The Pushkar Camel Fair was the reason I wanted to go to India. I ended up loving the amazing history and sights, not to mention all that delicious vegetarian food, but India wasn’t high on my list until I learned about Pushkar from Sanjay Saxena at last year’s Wendy Perrin Global Travel Summit (btw, we’re doing the summit on social media this year so that you can all be involved—stay tuned for more info on #WOWWeek soon!). Anyway, the Pushkar Camel Fair is an annual trade market for camels and horses that draws Indian farmers from around the country, but it’s also a festival with a sprawling outdoor market, a sandy fairground where families set up tents and hobble their camels and horses, and a big arena that hosts an opening-night flag ceremony and various competitions. But the best part is simply being able to wander around the fairground and watch as the families (many of whom have traveled far distances to be here) tend to their tents, cook their daily meals, and buy or sell their camels.

The trading was the most fascinating part of the festivals. But it was pretty subtle: just a bunch of men standing around talking about a camel or a horse, not all that different from groups of men standing around talking about the weather. Our guide, Kapil, however, had a keen eye for this and would discreetly direct us near sales meetings. One evening, we watched a duo of potential buyers size up some animals and then walk away. Thinking that the show was over, my friend and I quickly got distracted with other sights and photo ops, while Kapil strolled off to look at something else—we thought. Next thing we know, he’d made friends with the would-be buyers and all three of them were strolling back to us. The conversation that followed was such a natural interaction; it didn’t feel forced or voyeuristic the way some tourist-meets-local moments can, and that was all down to our guide’s natural ease and experience. He knew we wanted to learn more about the camel culture and he helped us learn about it, not through a “tour” or scripted guide-bookish lectures, but by nonchalantly making friends and then making those friends our friends. The men explained that they determine the value of a camel by patting its flanks and humps and counting number of teeth to determine age (young animals are more desirable but also more expensive). They had liked what they saw, but wanted to shop around a bit more before buying the two camels we’d seen them with before.

Making gelato in Foligno

Just look at all those flavors—and this was only a quarter of the options.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Hats are part of the uniform at Amandola Gelateria, and we got our own!
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
Ricardo shows us how he makes the base for all his gelato flavors (except the sorbet, which don't have cream).
Amandola Gelateria
These are the three flavors we made: Nutella with candied almond crunch, natural pistachio, and clementine.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
This is what the frozen gelato looked like before we added the flavorings.
clementine oranges Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
We used real clementines to make our clementine gelato.
Amandola Gelateria Foligno Italy
My mom and I were very proud of our creations.
We also cooked delicious full meals during our trip. At Tony's house in Pompeii, he and my mom got serious about meatball construction.
We pressed and filled fresh ravioli with Giuseppe at his agriturismo in Montefalco.
Ettore and Lorella made us feel like part of the family as we prepared dinner and then feasted together at their farmhouse near Spoleto.
These were the crostata, little lemon-dough pies filled with homemade peach and blackberry preserves from Lorella's garden. My mom and I made them for Thanksgiving dinner when we got home from our trip.
But in the end, our handmade gelato at Amandola Gelateria was still my favorite dessert.


This might have been the best day of my life. My mom and I learned to make gelato, from scratch, at Amandola Gelateria—and then chef-owner Ricardo let us try every flavor in the shop. Ricardo is a pastry chef who used to work at a high-end restaurant, but he left to open his own gelato shop in 2017 and so far seemed to be quite happy with his choice. From the minute we walked in, he and every one of his staff was smiling ear to ear (though who could be unhappy in an ice cream store) and happy to show us every aspect of their set-up. This immediate warmth was not at all unusual for our ten-day cooking trip through Umbria. When I asked Maria Landers to plan a culinary vacation for me and my mom, the ideas she came up with were way more than what we expected. Case in point: We didn’t step foot in any cooking school the entire trip. Instead we met local families and cooked with them in their homes. Tony grew up in Pompeii and is a guide at the ruins; we made fresh pasta with him and his daughter. Giuseppe runs an agriturismo and together we made ravioli, vegetable flan, nut bread, and molten chocolate cakes; and we spent the evening with organic farmers Ettore and Lorella, who live in a farmhouse near Spoleto that has been in Ettore’s family for centuries. In a beautiful old-fashioned kitchen, we whipped up gnocchi, a local chickpea dish, and my favorite new dessert, mini lemon-crusted pies called crostata. In all of these situations we were so warmly welcomed that we felt like we were part of the family as soon as we stepped through the doors. But while I loved all of the cooking experiences, this gelato night was a highlight for its sheer Willy Wonka-esque delight factor. Once we handmade three flavors of our own choosing in the back kitchen, Ricardo led us up front, picked up the container of tasting spoons, pointed at the case of more than 30 flavors, and said, “What would you like to try?” I could have hugged him right there. Actually, forget Willy Wonka, everyone needs a Ricardo in their life. His gelato is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. No joke: you should all get on a plane and get to Foligno right now.

Watching my mom bond with goats in Montefalco, Italy

In addition to all the cooking experiences, our Italy trip included private tours of small artisanal businesses, including an olive mill (where we met locals who’d brought in their own just-picked olives to be pressed into oil) and a small-batch, biodynamic wine-and-goat-cheese farm, Calcabrina, run by two brothers. We toured their wine facility and cheese cave, and then got to meet the goats that make it all happen. Turns out, my mom is a goat magnet. When she walked into the field and started petting one friendly goat, I thought, awww isn’t that cute. Then another one ambled over for a nuzzle. And then two more. Next thing we knew, my mom was surrounded by adoring goat fans. Yes we had delicious pasta, cheese, wine, and chocolate on this trip, but absolutely nothing could have made it better than seeing my mom laughing so hard. Just watch the video above.

Meeting the last of the Cohens in Cochin, India

Two women talking in Cochin India

Sarah was reading a prayer book in Hebrew when I came in. I know a few prayers so we sang one together.

This November, I met one of the last living Jews in Cochin, India. Her name is Sarah Cohen and she’s 95. Her eyes lit up when she heard that I was a Cohen too, and then we sang the sh’ma prayer together. It was pretty amazing…especially considering I’d started the day at Catholic mass. Catholics are the majority in the state of Kerala, but they’re not the only religion. I knew there was some out-of-the-way Jewish history here—it was one of the reasons Cochin made it onto my itinerary, rather than the more-popular beach destination of Goa. Turns out, though, no one really knows exactly when the first Jews arrived here. What we do know for sure is that the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was built in 1598 by European Jews who’d convinced the king of Cochin to let them stay, and that a few—a very few—Jewish families still live in town to this day. I hardly expected to meet any of them, but as we walked the narrow lane leading up to the synagogue (called, I kid you not, Jew Street, in the neighborhood of Jew Town), our walking-tour guide pointed out two houses where those families still reside. When we got to Sarah’s Embroidery Shop, he saw that she was inside, and offered to make an introduction. What happened next is something I’ll kvell about for years to come. You can read all about it—and see video of Sarah and me singing together—here.

Breaking my phone in Valle Bavona, Ticino, Switzerland

Valle Bavona stone village Ticino Switzerland

The valleys of Switzerland’s southern Ticino region are dotted with ancient stone villages still in use today.

I have only one photo from my best day in Switzerland, and that’s because I dropped my phone right as it started. The ground all around me was carpeted in soft grass, but I found the one sharp rock to crack my screen on. The upside was that I got the rare-for-me experience of seeing a place solely through my eyes and not through my screen and note-taking app. Being forced to unplug was particularly poetic because the place I was visiting, the Valle Bavona outside the city of Locarno in southern Switzerland, is dotted with centuries-old stone villages where the residents still refuse to use electricity. My guide, Anna, spends summer weekends in a home like the ones we were seeing, so she was able to explain how the otherwise modern homesteaders accomplish daily tasks like laundry, gardening, and cooking, and how those who live high up the steep mountains use pulley systems to load in their supplies. Later we hiked an off-road trail dotted with ancient cave grottos still used by area residents to store cheese and wine. It was a gorgeous day in an out-of-time valley, each rustic village more beautiful than the next. I have no photographic reminders of most of it, but I will certainly never forget it.

Going behind the scenes in Lisbon

Museu De Artes Decorativas Portuguesas

This brass carver was just one of the artisans I got to meet on my private behind-the-scenes tour of the workshops.

There are a ton of reasons to visit Lisbon, but in my opinion two of the biggest are the delicious local cuisine and the beautiful artisan craftwork. But instead of staying on the outside of the Lisbon experience—i.e., sitting down at any old tourist-trap restaurant and then meandering through the streets snapping pictures of the colorful building tiles—I spent a day going behind the scenes. My morning was all about food. I spent it with a hip private chef, hanging out in her stylish boho apartment learning to make vegetarian versions of traditional local dishes while we chatted over snacks and music. My favorite: tomato rice with a sous vide egg—so good. My afternoon was all about the arts, for which I headed to the Foundation Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva. Silva was a wealthy lover of the arts who donated his Azurara Palace and a chunk of his private collection to create the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1953, and founded a related school to preserve Portuguese craftsmanship. Today there is a building full of workshops adjacent to the museum, where skilled brass carvers, bookbinders, furniture makers, textile weavers, and tile makers hone their crafts, restore historic objects from around the country, and pretty much preserve a national legacy. And, lucky me, I got a private behind-the-scenes tour of those ateliers. In one particularly cool moment, I watched up close as an artist carved the decorative metal leaves that would adorn a piece of furniture I’d just seen in another room. Merely walking around Lisbon—a city with such visible history—is a treat in itself, but meeting the people who are still practicing those traditions elevates the entire experience. Plus, I got to try my hand at painting my own tiles. They don’t belong in a museum or on a building, but they look great in my apartment.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.