5 Small Towns to Visit for Life-changing Food in Northern Italy

Italy is full of amazing places that you won’t see if you stick to the main parts of the country like Venice, Milan or Florence. If you limit yourself to popular cities and major train routes, you miss out on some of Italy’s best bits.

We recommend driving through the hilly northern regions like Valdobbiadene and Parma and stopping in all the little towns along the way. This road trip is especially dreamy for fans of food; many towns specialize in making one specific thing and making it incredibly well. You’ll stop at Point A for the best balsamic vinegar, Point B for the best Parmigiano Reggiano, and onward still for the best prosecco.

Italy is pretty cheap too; you’d be hard-pressed to find a more delightful and delicious time without spending significantly more money. Whether you’re travelling Europe for the first time or you’re a returning visitor looking for a more intimate trip than say, Venice (no disrespect, it’s just super crowded there), here are five Italian towns you’ll be glad you took the time to see.

Noceto

Noceto is the place where you’ll learn what parmesan cheese is supposed to taste like. In much the same way that Prosecco Superiore DOCG can only be produced along Prosecco Road, the real parmesan cheese — Parmigiano-Reggiano — is only produced under specific conditions in a specific slice of northern Italy. The real thing is… transcendent. So delicious (and, more to the point, valuable) that people keep stealing it.

Here, look for caseficios — cheese factories — like Casearia Corradi in Noceto, a few miles outside the city of Parma. While you’re there, stay at Ciaolatte farmhouse — a B&B that produces cheeses farm-to-table. The province of Parma is also where you should try some prosciutto di Parma, which tastes extra-delicious partly because the pigs are fed whey leftover from the cheese-making process.

Valdobbiadene

Two hours north of Venice is a wine-producing region known especially for prosecco. In fact, the route between Valdobbiadene and the nearby Conegliano is sometimes called “Prosecco Road,” because of all the tasting rooms and vineyards along the way (you’d better draw lots for designated driver). Nothing is mass-produced here — it’s all family-run and small-scale. The thing you’re after is called Prosecco Superiore DOCG — the only downside of this heavenly tipple is that for the rest of your life, no prosecco will match it. Take your time working your way through different varietals at different tastings rooms. Stop at the centuries-old Gregoletto, and don’t miss the Vecchie Viti at Ruggieri. Find the stuff that insists you buy a few extra bottles to take home.

And all this, in a landscape of rustic stone homes folded into the sides of lush green mountains, with vineyards rolling away in every direction. You might find yourself staying for a while. Perhaps you should move.

Cortina d’Ampezzo

About an hour’s drive from Venice, this town in the province of Belluno was a Winter Olympics site half a century ago. Today, Cortina d’Ampezzo (as with all double-Zs, you pronounce the first one as a ‘T,’ like “pizza”) is known first and foremost as a ski resort but is a stunner all year-round. Nestled in a valley alongside the Boite river, in the shadow of the Dolomites, this is a town for outdoorsy folks craving that good mountain air; mountain biking, rock-climbing, and hiking outside ski season.

It’s not short of culture, either. There’s a modern art museum, a palaeontology museum, and a biannual “Mountain of Books” festival drawn from the town’s rich literary history. German, Austrian, and Hungarian influences are heavy here, so try some hearty, meat-laden gulasch süppe, along with pretty much any sort of dumpling you come across. If you have the coin, the circular (and Michelin-starred) Il Gazebo offers panoramic views of the mountains.

Portofino

Mountains and vineyards and lakes are all very charming, but any itinerary is improved by an ocean breeze. Portofino, a coastal town on the Italian Riviera, is pastel-colored like the better-known Amalfi Coast, and also full of excellent shopping and seafood. It’s not exactly undiscovered though, so go in spring or fall to avoid the crowds.

About an hour-and-a-half drive south from Genoa, this is the absolute perfect town to post up at a waterside trattoria and spend the day people-watching while you graze on a succession of wines and meats and cheeses. Climb the steps to the Fort of Saint George for an unparalleled view of the harbour and surrounding villas. Take a dip in the Paraggi Bay. Set aside a day to wander the footpaths of the Parco Regionale di Portofino (there is an app for this) and cap off your trip with dinner at the acclaimed Chuflay Restaurant (you’ll need a reservation).

Modena

Okay, Modena is not really a small town, but your northern Italy food itinerary would be incomplete without the city’s balsamic. Modena is not just famous for its signature balsamic vinegar; it has several other claims to fame, including being the birthplace of tortellini and Enzo Ferrari. However, the Ferrari Museum is not a necessary place to include in your itinerary unless you’re very into cars, and that tortellini is whatever unless you’ve never eaten any other shape of pasta. Your time is better spent sampling vinegar so sweet and flavorful you could put it on ice cream.

Do a vinegar tasting. They work in the same way as wine tastings. Vinegar here is aged 12 years, or 25 years, or up from there if you’re looking to drop some coin. Yes, you get bread with your balsamic.

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