Traveling to Italy for the food and wine is a slam-dunk trip. Wherever you go, a menu of delicacies awaits amid thousands of years of history, culture and art. The country itself is a museum of western civilization, and like any fine museum, it can be overwhelming.
That’s where a first-class curator comes in handy, someone who can cull through the overwhelming collection to present a manageable feast for the eyes, ears, and palate.
European Waterways and Delta Tours fulfill that role beautifully, offering a luxury barge tour of Venice and the Po River Valley.
La Bella Vita
For those who object to such proximity of the words “barge” and “luxury,” rest assured there is no contradiction here. La Bella Vita is a comfortable, renovated barge with room for 20 passengers and 9 crew who seem to anticipate every whim.
A sense of the intimacy that barge cruising affords became apparent this past July, as we entered the port of Venice to begin a week-long voyage to Mantua. La Bella Vita was docked next to a number of large cruise ships that looked like massive apartment complexes. In comparison, our barge looked like a small house with a white picket fence, saying, “Welcome home.”
On board, Captain Rudy Toninato invited us to the sundeck for an evening cruise along Venice’s Giudecca Canal. We toasted the city and each other with prosecco, served with perfectly ripened slices of melon and delicious prosciutto.
Italy: A Two-Track Tour
Throughout the week to come, we continued to enjoy what amounted to two separate tours: one historic, the other culinary. Tour leader Klaudia Neri provided a thorough and entertaining look at life along the Po River – past and present – with visits to the beautiful villa where Lord Byron courted the Countess Giuccioli, to an archaeological museum in Adria with Etruscan treasures, and to the beautiful and elaborate castles and palaces of the Renaissance city of Ferrara.
Meanwhile, Chef Andrea Chin prepared a broad offering of regional cuisines, from Venice in the north to Sicily in the south. Every meal began with a brief look at a map and a description of the cuisine we were about to sample.
Apropos of the setting that first night, dinner was a seafood-lover’s delight: scallops au gratin, seafood risotto and turbot filet with a yellow pepper dressing. The wine accompaniment and the cheese finale were perfect choices, and the stage was set for a week in gastronomical heaven.
Touring the Venetian Lagoon
The first morning, after breakfast, Klaudia led us on a walking tour of Venice’s Castello district. From the Church of San Pietro, we walked to the Naval Museum, where an extensive array of models, uniforms and boating paraphernalia reminds visitors that Venice was a seafaring powerhouse until the late 15th century, when the discovery of America changed the trade routes (and the balance of power) forever.
Back on La Bella Vita, seafood was plentiful, from cold squid salad on the midday buffet, to linguine with lobster sauce and scampi alla Catalana at the evening meal. As always, a selection of Italian wines and cheeses complemented dinner wonderfully, as we left Venice and headed toward the Po River.
After leaving Venice, we landed in Chioggia, with its beautiful churches and picturesque canals. The centerpiece of Chioggia is an open-air fish market, where every day local fishermen offer a wide variety of fresh-caught regional seafood.
On the day of our visit, the fish market was buzzing, and locals were preparing the town streets for a festival, which Klaudia explained is a fairly common occurrence in Chioggia.
Sampling Italy’s Best
When we returned to the barge, Chef Andrea had prepared a lunch typical of the Campania region of southern Italy: eggplant parmigiana with Chianti Classico, followed by zeppole (traditional deep fried pastry) and a cheese plate featuring Pecorino Romano e Belpaese.
At every stop on our cruise, Chef Andrea sent a member of the crew into town to buy the freshest ingredients for that day’s treats. Memorable favorites included a spectacular lamb ragout and a delicious lasagne alla Bolognese. Perfectly paired wines and cheeses, along with classic Italian desserts, provided the finishing touches that made every meal a work of art.
In the small village of Bussari, we visited an estate that served as a reminder of how far back the epicurean history of Italy truly stretches. The 3,000-acre Dominio di Bagnoli estate has produced wine, balsamic vinegar, rice and truffles for more than 1,000 years. In 1654, the Villa Widmann-Borletti was built over the ruins of a 12th century Benedictine monastery, and that villa today is the world’s only source of Friularo wines. We were treated to a tour of the grounds, and to a private tasting in those ancient Benedictine cellars.
Final Destination: Mantua
Mantua, the home of the poet Virgil and the artists Mantegna and Donatello, faces lakes on three sides, and our approach provided a dramatic view of the ancient skyline that has impressed newcomers since the 14th century.
After a day of touring, we enjoyed our final meal aboard La Bella Vita, and it was a Mantuan feast. The captain joined us for a dinner that began with a pumpkin tortelli starter, followed by a duck breast alla Modenese entrée, and finished with the hard, crumbly sbrisolona cake with Marsala cream for dessert.
Before the end of the voyage, passengers were invited to visit the galley, which seemed small for the variety of food produced all week. Chef Andrea said his experience in Venetian restaurants had prepared him for cooking in tiny kitchens. He has been cooking all his life, he told us, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and a long line of family chefs. Now he is working on a cookbook with menus typical of specific Italian regions.
As we left La Bella Vita that last morning, we thanked Chef Andrea for letting us help test his recipes and the rest of the crew for showing us just how luxurious traveling by barge can be.
All Photos — © 2013, Lisa TE Sonne