I am indebted to travel writer Matt Gross for discovering a unique new way to enliven and expand your appreciation of Italy by arranging to have an authentic multicourse dinner with an Italian family in their home. It costs a registration fee of 3 euros, then 35 euros for the magnificent feast itself (including wine), which leaves you so bloated with satisfaction that you can scarcely walk out the door when the evening ends. We can only hope that other countries will create similar programs for their own homegrown family chefs, and thus add another dimension to the rewards of international travel.
The organization behind these Italian events is HomeFood (www.homefood.it). It requires that you first fill out a form designed to confirm your bona fides and warn you of several necessary conditions: "Do you realize the importance of arriving at the home on time? Are you aware that your meal is not in a restaurant but in a private home?"
The people to whose home you go for dinner are chosen from among talented home chefs, often grandmothers and others who prepare their dishes from recipes popular in Italy 100 years ago. Some do it for the money; most of them for the opportunity to meet foreign visitors and expose them to the glories of authentic Italian cuisine. Many are in small Italian towns where the arrival of a tourist is an event.
In every instance, dishes are authentic and usually from produce and animals of the vicinity. Gross recalls a meal where the opening dish was spaghetti with lamb ragout. He recalls lots of cheeses, sublime local products unlike any he had ever tasted and fresh vegetables from an adjoining garden. At some meals, he and another visitor were the only guests. At others, there were a maximum of six foreign tourists seated around the dining-room table. He was particularly impressed by the home meals he had in the Italian province of Abruzzo, whose cuisine rarely is encountered in Italian restaurants abroad, but whose dishes were nothing short of memorable.
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Are there any counterparts to this program in other nations? My daughter and I discussed the matter on our recent radio program, "The Travel Show" (www.wor710.com/pages/48902), and immediately received several calls from visitors telling us of home meals they had enjoyed in the course of their travels.
One of them mentioned that Grand Circle Travel (www.gct.com) makes a point of including a visit to a local home — and a family meal in that home — in most of the tours it operates to countries all around the world. Groups are split up for this purpose, and are never more than eight or 10 in number at any one home. Grand Circle is, of course, a tour company whose clientele is limited to mature and elderly people.
Another caller told us that Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel) often includes a home visit for a home-cooked meal in many of its own programs; the caller spoke of visiting an Amish home in Pennsylvania with a group of 25 Elderhostel travelers, all partaking of a typical, massive Amish meal of absolutely fresh ingredients prepared by an Amish woman and her family.
Another caller said that in the summer months, in small towns all over America, fundraising dinners are held in firehouses or other public facilities, in which one eats home-cooked meals of a local flavor. These are advertised, he said, in the local weekly community newspapers, and are available during most weeks of July and August to people vacationing in the vicinity.
But nothing strikes me as so fully available to the traveler-at-large as the HomeFood program, which is another reason for traveling to Italy this year.