Now That's Italian!

The hilltop village of Montefalco is a sleepy Umbrian hamlet with characteristic views of olive groves, vineyards and crumbling old villas. Villagers sip their morning cappuccino standing up at a counter, and the scent of garlic being sauteed in oil wafts through the air. There aren't many unspoiled scenes like this in Italy's tourist hot spots, where visitors sometimes seem to outnumber the locals. In Montefalco, the few tourists are mostly out of sight--in the basement of the Pambuffetti Villa, learning the difference between al dente and overcooked.

Everyone knows you can eat well in Italy. But why stop there when you can spend your vacation digesting the fine art of making Italian cuisine? Instead of tramping through churches, museums and shops, increasing numbers of visitors to Italy are enjoying culinary tourism: chopping and stirring, pressing olives, learning how to produce wine. Tuscany is the most popular spot for cuisine-related travel, as it is for many other kinds of tourism. But visitors can also study cooking in Umbria or even in crime-ridden Apulia. They can help with the wine harvest in Piedmont or make lemon desserts on the Amalfi coast. "I've been thinking of doing this for years," says Jane Gantz, a 51-year-old university admissions director from Bloomington, Ind., as she carefully dissects a ripe tomato at the Pambuffetti Villa. "I've always read cooking magazines and watched cooking shows, but this is incredible."

Karen Herbst, whose Chicago-based firm, The International Kitchen, arranged the trip to Montefalco, says her clients want "an authentic experience. And the simplest introduction to a country is through the food." Alessandra Angelucci, whose family owns Pambuffetti, and her cook, Anna, mix equal parts cooking and local folklore to provide a full-immersion course in Italian culture. "Cuisine is part of every Italian," Angelucci says as she tastes a green bean. "That's why these students love it. It's the history they are learning in the kitchen. It's not just about recipes."

Along with history and recipes, the students learn technique. Anna, who speaks no English, guides Sharon Boerbon Hanson, a public-relations specialist from St. Paul, Minn., as she mixes a bechamel sauce. "Piano [slowly]!" Anna commands, and Hanson obediently slows the pace of her stirring. "She's really very patient," Hanson says of her instructor. "I just love the sociability of the group. This makes it a true vacation."

The culinary-tourism trend is being driven by the growing number of celebrity chefs in the United States and Europe. Five years ago Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, star of "Lidia's Italian Table" on PBS, started a tourism business called Esperienze Italiane, to cater to a few clients of a pair of restaurants she owns in New York City. The business took off from there. "Chefs have become so famous, and there are so many 24-hour cooking channels that everyone wants to cook," says Shelly Burgess, another cofounder of the firm. By the time they are ready for culinary tourism, amateur chefs have already learned a lot from television, she adds. "Now everybody knows what prosciutto is," says Burgess. "Before these cooking shows, we had Virginia country ham, and that was about it."

The cooking-and-travel trend got started in Italy in the early 1990s when the Italian government began to license tourist farms called agriturismi. Anyone who owned a plot of land and a farmhouse could turn it into an upscale bed-and-breakfast. The government stipulated that the farms had to teach something to their guests and had to actually produce something. The most popular products are olive oil, wine and confections like truffle paste or wild-boar sausage, much of which is sold to guests. Most of the agritourism farms produce only a few hundred bottles of wine or olive oil in a season, which makes it feasible for them to include onlookers in the process. Guests help to harvest grapes and even stomp on a few--long enough to get their pictures taken. Or they pick olives and help with the pressing. Then, after tasting the wine or the oil, many of them attend cooking classes that have been added to the agenda over the years.

Cooking in Italy is not a budget holiday. The International Kitchen charges about $2,050 a person for accommodations and lessons for a typical six-day cooking tour in Umbria; air fare is extra. Esperienze Italiane charges $3,975 for six days in Piedmont, again without air fare. Both companies charge supplements ranging from $315 to $580 for clients traveling alone. (The Italian tourist board says the largest category of culinary travelers consists of women on their own, ages 35 to 55.)

Cost aside, culinary tourism is a treat for both the tour operators and their clients. "This is the best vacation I've ever had," says Leslie Kent Kunkel, a 45-year-old librarian from Santa Barbara, Calif., as she kneads a wad of dough in the kitchen of the Pambuffetti. But Angelucci, the villa's proprietor, worries that having too many English-speaking cooks may spoil the Italian broth. As more American and British travel agencies send their clients to places like Montefalco, culinary tourism may tend to cater to their tastes and lose some of its Italian flavor, she warns. "It is very hard not to be blinded by the success of these programs," she says. The recipe for success, it seems, is as delicate a balance of ingredients as any gourmet dish.