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5 Ways to See Italy

Five experts reveal their insider tips, from a ceramics tour of the Amalfi Coast to a culinary drive in Emilia-Romagna.

By Valerie Waterhouse

Amalfi Coast: Seaside Artisans

Bespoke travel agent Andrea Grisdale leads the way to the area’s best shopping.

Andrea Grisdale has visited just about every corner of Italy, yet the place that the Lake Como–based CEO of IC Bellagio keeps returning to is the Sorrentine Peninsula. “The bright blue water, fresh food, and Mediterranean sun make the Amalfi Coast one of my favorite places in the world,” says the U.K. native. “Most of all, I love the handmade ceramics: my house is full of them.” Rich with natural clay pits, the area has been known for pottery since the 13th century. Grisdale is especially partial to the tiles and dishware painted with the region’s palette: seaside azures, lemon yellows, and sunset pinks.

The center of Amalfi Coast ceramics production since medieval times has been Vietri sul Mare. At the best factory and store, Ceramica Artistica Solimene Vincenzo, a building covered in 20,000 brown and green vase bases, you’ll find crockery designed with handsome, nature-inspired motifs (grapes, lemons, flowers, foliage). Grisdale’s recent discoveries: a tapered vase with blue-and-yellow flowers and simple blue-and-white dinner plates. A 10-minute drive from Vietri takes you to Marsia Ceramiche for contemporary pieces by Salerno-born, London-trained artist Mariella Siano. Don’t miss her spherical lamps with light filtering through pinholes and her decorative agave-leaf sculptures. Ten miles to the northeast, in Monti Picentini Natural Park, Antico Cotto di Berardino De Martino is where the De Martino brothers bake terra-cotta-colored tiles in a 450-year-old wood oven. In nearby Ravello, visitCeramiche d’Arte Factory to watch Pasquale Sorrentino create everything from lamps to tabletops in a light-filled studio. Look for vases, plates, and mugs with intricate floral designs using Sorrentino’s signature blue. Just outside Positano, Ceramica Casola never disappoints: the cheerfully decorated ceramics factory and garden are adorned with urns, plates, and tiles with fruits and flowers.

Sleep

Hotel Santa Caterina The 1850’s cliffside hotel recently added four chic bedrooms in an adjacent villa. Doubles from $631.

Palazzo Sasso Rooms at this 12th-century palazzo are filled with antiques and have unparalleled views. Doubles from $330.

Le Sirenuse This seaside classic is furnished with handmade vases and tiles. Doubles from $712.

Eat

Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 Grisdale’s favorite restaurant serves seasonal dishes such as lobster stuffed with zucchini and eggplant. Dinner for two $270.

Modena: A Foodie Drive

Chef Massimo Bottura whips up a weekend tour of culinary treats and cultural highlights.

Modena-born Massimo Bottura recalls his grandmother making pasta dough twice daily to serve the family fresh tortellini for lunch and dinner. “In her hands, the dough became a translucent yellow sheet that illuminated the dark rooms closed off from the summer’s heat,” he says. At his Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana he draws on the local bounty he remembers from his childhood dinner table: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto crudo.

Day One

Check in to Great Value Hotel Cervetta 5 (doubles from $140), an unpretentious hotel in the city center. Then drive 20 minutes east to the Abbazia di Nonantola to see an eighth-century monastery with an imposing vaulted interior. Continue 10 miles to Antica Osteria del Mirasole (lunch for two $100), a rustic trattoria where owner Franco Cimini grills steaks from the region’s bianca modenese cattle. Pair your lunch with a glass of Lambrusco or Sangiovese (drivers: the bottle can be recorked for later). Before returning to Modena, stop in the suburb of Cittanova forHombre, an organic Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy (a tour finishes with a sampling of cheeses). End the day over dinner at Hostaria del Mare (dinner for two $150). Bottura’s pick: chef Vittorio Novani’s fresh pasta with ricci (sea urchin).

Day Two

Do as the Modenese do and visit the covered market of Albinelli (mornings only). Pick up lunch to go at Panini Schiavoni, a stall with unusual sandwich fillings (smoked swordfish; toasted pine nuts). The road leading to Museo Galleria Ferrari, in Maranello, offers many scenic spots for a spontaneous picnic. Then swing by Pasticceria Gollini, whose flourless torta barozzi chocolate cake is a secret family recipe from the 1800’s; enjoy it at a table beneath a pretty covered walkway. Then head to the medieval town of Spilamberto and visit the Museo del Balsamico Tradizionale and select a bottle of syrupy black vinegar—make sure it’s labeled tradizionale, which means it’s made from aged grape must with no added sugar. Where to spend your last evening of the weekend? At Modena’s innovative Osteria Francescana (dinner for two $125), of course. A tasting menu has a play on a regional panino: “memory of a mortadella sandwich,” a cube of crunchy foccacia with mortadella foam.

Great Value: Denotes a hotel with a rack rate of $250 or less.

Florence: Art Tour

Ori Kafri, gallerist and hotelier, opens his little black book to the city’s modern art world.

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance has become a hot spot for contemporary creativity. “The gallery scene in Florence is buzzing,” says J.K. Place Hotels founder Ori Kafri, an ardent photography collector who recently co-opened a gallery in the Tuscan capital. Kafri’s FOR Gallery is one of about a dozen spaces that have arrived in the past decade, bringing with them fresh local and international talent. “Many artists are trying to comprehend the present while relating to the past,” Kafri says. “Florence provides an ideal context.”

In Diladdarno—the city’s up-and-coming art district—you’ll find FOR Gallery, Kafri’s photography and video gallery, dedicated to cutting-edge talent such as Israeli street-art photographer David Kassman and Italy’s Massimo Listri. Also in Diladdarno, the long-established Poggiali e Forconi has impressive rotating shows that include Patti Smith and David LaChapelle. Museo Marino Marini, in a former church, houses 183 sculptures by mid-20th-century Tuscan artist Marino Marini, famous for stylized equestrian works. Art guru Isabella Brancolini oversees the centro storico’sBrancolini Grimaldi, a bookstore and gallery that shows edgy international photography. She also curates for the nearby Gallery Hotel Art (doubles from $391). At Galleria Biagiotti, American Carole Biagiotti represents the likes of Italian street painter Ericailcane—known for his whimsical fauna-themed paintings and drawings. The new Sangallo Art Station is a gallery-café featuring rising and established names such as 1970’s Pop artist Mario Schifano. In the basement of a Renaissance palazzo, La Strozzina showcases themed exhibits by young area talents.

Sleep

J.K. Place Hotel Firenze Architect Michele Bönan designed Kafri’s stylish, 20-room hotel with thoughtful residential touches (large bookcases; welcoming fireplaces). Doubles from $442.

Eat

Buca dell’Orafo This intimate restaurant is helmed by Giordano Monni, who selects ingredients at the nearby San Lorenzo market. Try the chittarini, angel-hair pasta with porcini mushrooms. Dinner for two $95.

Drink

Art Bar In the center of the city, creative types flock to this pocket-size bar for its fresh-fruit cocktails. Drinks for two $20.

Mantua: Design Scene

Style guru Carla Sozzani highlights the best spots in her native Lombardy town.

Carla Sozzani may be synonymous with cutting-edge style in Milan, but the founder of the 10 Corso Como shopping emporium actually hails from a history-rich town 120 miles east of Italy’s fashion capital. “Mantua informed my earliest experiences,” she says. “The beautiful places that surrounded me still influence my aesthetic choices.” Mantua’s palpable past—medieval streets; Renaissance palazzi—is now the backdrop of a burgeoning arts, design, and literary enclave, which continues to draw Sozzani back to her birthplace year after year.

Sleep

Great Value Hotel Casa Poli All 34 minimalist rooms are outfitted with Flos and Groppi light fixtures; beds are dressed in dark blue and bordeaux linens. Doubles from $216.

Eat

Ristorante Il Cigno Sozzani’s favorite restaurant is housed in a 500-year-old palazzo and serves the town’s besttortelli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli). Dinner for two $150. L’Aquila Nigra Under original 14th- and 15th-century frescoes, choose from a mix of classic and experimental dishes. Try the crunchy fried river shrimp with zucchini. Dinner for two $180.

Drink

Bar Caravatti Select a table by the window, order the golden-brown namesake aperitif, and watch the bustle in nearby Piazza delle Erbe. Drinks for two $15.

Shop

Agape The white-and-wood design store sells sleek housewares (bright orange showerheads; stainless-steel wall lights). Maurizio Corraini This exceptional publisher of design books runs a shop and art gallery. Look for titles by Enzo Mari and Bruno Munari.

See

Palazzo Te Inside a colonnaded 16th-century palace, you’ll find Mannerist frescoes by Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael’s.

Great Value: Denotes a hotel with a rack rate of $250 or less.

Umbria: From the Vine

Winemaker Giampiero Bea shares his short list of standout natural vintners in central Italy.

Mineral-rich soil and a wide range of native grape varieties make Umbria an ideal center for organic wine production, says Giampiero Bea, who helps run his family’s winery outside the region’s medieval town of Montefalco. “Our wines are beyond organic—we use no chemicals at any stage of the process, from the vineyard to fermentation.” Bea, who joined Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea in the 1980’s after training as an architect, is part of Consorzio ViniVeri, a small group of dedicated producers who are leaving their mark on Italy’s wine scene.

The Bea family’s Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea is 25 miles south of Perugia near Montefalco. Stop by for adegustazione in the bio-architectural headquarters, constructed with radon-free travertine stone. Taste the Montefalco Sagrantino red, made from Sagrantino grapes, with sweet hints of blackberry and persimmon. From here, it takes just 10 minutes to reach Fattoria Colleallodole di Milziade Antano, where owner Francesco Antano organizes tastings by appointment amid metal and wooden barrels in a modern farmhouse cellar. The Sagrantino Colleallodole red is a limited-edition 14-degree cru reminiscent of wild berries. Follow a winding road through an olive-and-pine-tree-dotted landscape for about 15 minutes until you reach Cantina Collecapretta. This long-established producer makes chemical-free wines: Umbria Terra dei Preti has an intense, flinty flavor, and the bottles have charming old-fashioned green-and-white labels. Arrange a tasting in the cellars of the vineyard’s gray stone farmhouse. Worth the one-hour drive over the regional border to Lazio is the Monastero delle Trappiste (by appointment), a remote convent with a cloistered garden, where 75 Trappist nuns make natural wines under the guidance of Giampiero Bea. Sample the Coenobium Rusticum, an orange-inflected white wine made by soaking grape skins in fresh juice, and golden-green Coenobium, with hints of herbs.

Sleep

Great Value Villa Mustafà This three-room B&B in a 19th-century villa is furnished with antique wooden chests and paintings.

Eat

Enoteca L’Alchimista A lively restaurant in a brick cellar in the town center. Try the creamy scrambled eggs with grated truffles. Dinner for two $60.

See

Museo Civico di San Francesco Frescoes depicting the life of Saint Francis and others by Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, fill this deconsecrated church.

Great Value: Denotes a hotel with a rack rate of $250 or less.