For oenophiles, Northern Italy offers an embarrassment of riches. Not only is it packed with world-class wineries, but the region also offers spectacular food and historical sites. Whether it’s a super-Tuscan and bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence (maybe after a day spent with Michelangelo’s David) or gnocchi and Amarone in the steps of Romeo and Juliet, there really is no way to go wrong.
Among all the regions of Italy, Tuscany has perhaps most firmly snagged the American imagination; just think about how many sofa styles or paint colors invoke its name. But, beyond the hype, Tuscany pays off with big-gun wines, offering everything from beefy Morellino di Scansano from Maremma and super Tuscan Sassicaia from the Livorno Coast to traditional Chianti Classico from the hills south of Florence. Expect Tuscany’s cuisine to be as titanic as its reds. Game and wild boar from the region’s ample forests appear frequently, as do giant, nearly raw steaks made from Tuscany’s heritage Chianina cattle. Then, of course, there are the cities to visit—Pisa, Siena, Florence. A pilgrimage to this region is de rigueur for every student of art and architecture.
While Venice, the Veneto’s capital, is its unrivaled tourist mecca, Verona is free from most of that city’s perpetual tourist crush. More relaxed (and less tweaked to suit foreign visitors), Verona, which is about a two-hour drive north from Florence, holds excellent examples of Roman and Medieval architecture. Verona is the Veneto’s wine center and home to Italy’s annual wine boondoggle, Vinitaly, the April gathering of winemakers from all over the boot. The Veneto wines to look for are, of course, Soave, Prosecco, Valpolicella, and Amarone. The cuisine of Verona is just as diverse as its wine. Look for seafood from the Adriatic, plus the Veronese specialties of gnocchi, chicken-liver mousse, polenta, and stick-to-your-ribs game like hare.
Stay: In Florence, the carefully restored villa Il Salviatino is an ideal pick. While summers in the bottom of the Florentine bowl can get stifling, this retreat in the hill town of Fiesole offers gardens, breezes, and a stunning pool. (The hotel offers a shuttle for the short ride into town.) Much of Il Salviatino remains from its days as a 15th-century private estate. Look for hand-restored ceilings and historic architectural elements joined with modern WiFi, sit-down rain showers, and luxurious Italian linens. In addition, Il Salviatino’s kitchen is run by Carmine Calò, a Michelin-starred chef, and guests can opt for full- or half-board meal service during their stay. Also look for Il Salviatino’s full-service spa, which is overseen by Vranges, one of Florence’s top perfume houses. Rooms start at 485 Euros, about $630 US. (Via del Salviatino, 21, Fiesole, Province of Florence, 50137; salviatino.com)
In the center of Verona, Il Salviatino’s sister hotel, Palazzo Victoria, offers many of the same amenities, including historical architectural elements—some dating to the start of the 14th century. When the hotel was created, archeologists uncovered Roman ruins—some of these are on display in the hotel’s below-ground meeting rooms. Palazzo Victoria is ideally located within the old Roman city walls and steps from the Roman Corso di Porta Borsari and Arena di Verona. It’s also close to the Via Mazzini, Verona’s swank shopping drag. (Via Adua, 37121, Verona; palazzovictoria.com)
Taste: In Tuscany, don’t miss Fattoria Vitticio, specialists in Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Bolgheri Rosso. Fattoria Vitticio includes a full-service agriturismo—ideally suited to vacationing families. (Fattoria Viticcio S.r.l., Via San Cresci, 12/A, Greve in Chinati, Florence; fattoriavitticio.com)
Located about one and half hours from Florence, the ancient town of Bolgheri in Liguria makes a perfect day trip for dedicated lovers of Italian wine. While in Bolgheri, visit Tenuta San Guido, the winery that is credited with giving birth to what some claim to be the best super-Tuscan, the Sassicaia. At the Tenuta San Guido estate, Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta continues the 44-year-old tradition of making elite Tuscan wines with Cabernet grapes. The Marchese is admired for bucking the vocal market to create some of the most elegant super-Tuscans around. The gorgeous estate includes a stable and cypress-lined walks. In the area, you’ll find stone structures that date back to the 8th century. (Le Capanne 27, 57022 Bolgheri, Livorno; tenutasanguido.com)
Verona is almost synonymous with Soave. In this city, devoted drinkers of strictly local wines will find dizzying variety in expressions of that grape. While there, Azienda Agricola Ca’Rugate is worth a trip, located just outside of Verona. This winery offers a gorgeous tasting room and guided tours through the winery’s vinification cellar, barrel room, grape-drying loft, and “eno-museum” with displays of antique winemaking equipment. (Azienda Agricola Ca’Rugate, via Pergola, 36-37030 Montecchia di Crosara)
Relax: While a Florentine visit is not complete without a peek at Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia (Campo della Carità Dorsoduro n. 1050), oenophiles (and art lovers) may also want to check out Caravaggio’s Bacchus in the Galleria degli Uffizi (Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6). In this Baroque painting, the buzzed-looking Roman god of wine extends his glass outward to the viewer, saying, in essence, “Drink up.” In Verona, vestiges of ancient Rome abound, but for a contemplative break, you might hit the lush Giardino Giusti (Via Giardino Giusti, 2, Verona), a centuries-old tourist landmark. This gorgeous garden is highlighted by soaring cypresses, one of which was immortalized by the German poet Goethe.
Eat: Though Florence can sometimes feel like a city full of visitors, there are a few restaurants that offer a taste of the local. In particular, Slow Food hero Il Ristorante Cibrèo (Via Del Macci, 111r) offers traditional Florentine fare and wine primarily sourced from within the region. In a nod to Florentine history, Il Cibrèo serves polenta where some tourists might expect pasta. In Verona’s old Filippini quarter, Trattoria al Bersagliere (Via dietro Pallone 1, Verona) offers an extensive menu of locally sourced, seasonal foods to natives and foodie pilgrims alike. Also, look for al Bersagliere’s excellent wine list and more than 300 grappas and regional liqueurs.
Shop: There’s something a little intimate—and thrilling—about the way the ladies at Madova measure your hands for gloves. You place your elbow on a little beige velvet cushion, and they painstakingly slide the leather over and between your fingers. Look for a stunning selection of colors, lengths, and linings at this 94-year-old, family-owned glove shop near the foot of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence (Via Dè Guicciardini, 1). In Verona, oenophiles might want to skip the usual Italian luxury goods on the Via Mazzini for wine browsing in the Enoteca Dal Zovo Oreste (Vicolo San Marco in Foro, 7). This jam-packed temple to intoxicants (plus oils and vinegars) is owned by a sommelier—look for a huge variety of wines, grappas, and liqueurs.
Off the Beaten Track: In Rome, the Catacombe di San Callisto offer a peek into an underground city of the dead. More than 500,000 Florentines, including many early Christians, were buried here during the era of Roman persecution (Via Appia Antica, 126). The consumption of horse meat is a longstanding tradition in Verona, where, in opposition to much of Europe, they actually do it on purpose. The dome-ceilinged Osteria al Carro Armato (translated as “the tank”) offers several traditional dishes featuring horse meat (Vicolo Gatto 2).