Lazio wines rising on the Italian, international wine scenes

Antonio Benedetti, a sommelier, in his tasting room at Cantine Santa Benedetta. Photo by Marina Pascucci


FRASCATI, Italy — Daniele Cernilli remembers when he was a little boy in Rome 50 years ago, back when Italian cinema was booming and so was the economy. His father used to send him to the local osteria, a small, very traditional family run restaurant, to get a big jug of wine. Through most of the 20th century, Romans bought wine in bulk, kind of like how they buy water now except in bottles the size of small oil drums. It was quantity, not quality. Little Daniele could tell just by smelling the vinegar level.

“The color of the wine was orange, not yellow,” Cernelli wrote in an email. “A wine like that nowadays would be undrinkable.”

Cernelli, known around the world as Doctor Wine, knows more than just local wine. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine (www.doctorwine.it) every year from 2007-09. He’s an international wine judge and his five books include “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” the bible I used to navigate my new wonderful world of wines from Rome’s Lazio region.

A significant draw for me retiring to Rome five years ago was having the best wines in the world within Italy’s borders. Since moving here, one of my most pleasant surprises is some of Italy’s best wines are within the borders of Lazio.

Like Rome’s pizzas and gelato, Lazio wines are the most underrated in Italy.

Crisp white wines. Rich, bold reds. When I go out, wines like Cesanese and Trebbiano and Bellone have entered my lexicon. I’ve even found a high-end, romantic, reasonably priced wine bar in Rome devoted entirely to Lazio wines. VyTA, just off Via del Corso, has become my must stop when I go into the center.

But to get a true taste of Lazio wines, I had to go into the heart of Lazio wine country. I rented a car and in only about 30 minutes Marina and I found ourselves standing in a vineyard of 35 acres of grape vines high in the green, rolling Alban Hills southeast of Rome. This is Frascati, for years home of the only Lazio wine known outside Italy. I remember my first stint in Rome from 2001-03. I’d have picnics in this villa-laden town of 22,000 people. If there’s a better picnic wine than the crisp, cool Frascati white I always bought, I didn’t know it until now.

Showing us around the vineyard was Antonio Benedetti, a tall, suave, worldly sommelier and chef who returned last year after eight years cooking in restaurants from South Africa to London and two as a sommelier in Mazzo in Rome. He’s part of the 13th generation of Benedettis who have run Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati going on 320 years.

Antonio Benedetti in his vineyard at his Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati at 320 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Like Daniele, Antonio, 29, knows the old Lazio wine stories. It wasn’t too long ago when this region supplied Rome’s massive population and its thirst for wine. Wine is one of Italy’s five major food groups and with a 1970 population of 2.8 million, the same as today, quality took a back seat to quantity.

“The first reason is the fact that everything that was made as a mistake, they made in this area,” he said. “Massive production. The big problem here is many, many producers used to have from 10 acres to 200 acres. They helped the big companies and their production.”

Not far away near the town of Zagarolo, Cantina del Tufaio (www.cantinadeltufaio.it) has been around since 1881. So has the big house where Marina and I visited with owner Claudio Loreti who served us a lovely Malvasia-Savignon Blanc blend and a very smooth Merlot. He said local drinking habits were hard to break. He told us a story from the 1940s when his father and father’s cousin made a batch of wine with 13 percent alcohol, high by local standards back then but normal today.

They carted it to a Rome restaurant where the owner took one taste and all but spit it out. So the pair went back to their winery and cut the wine with water, dropping the alcohol level to 10 percent.

Claudio Loreti at his Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Then they returned.

“They gave the owner the vino with water and the owner said, ‘Buono! Good! I like it!’” Loreti said.

Silvia Brannetti of Riserva della Cascina (www.reservadellacascina.it) has a winery within the Rome city limits. It sits right off Ostia Antica, the road where Spartacus’ slaves were crucified during their rebellion (See Spartacus: Failed labor movement). Her grandfather made wine when she was little.

Needless to say, it never made Decanter magazine.

“We call it Vino Scuzzo,” she said. “It’s the kind of wine you come and pick up with your barrel. It was not bad. I know it wasn’t the sort of wine I’d call quality wine. He went around the city and tried to sell it.”

Cantine Santa Benedetta’s vineyard. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In Lazio these days, “not bad” isn’t good. The whole region’s wine makers are pushing out the big wine bottles hanging in wicker baskets on farms and replacing them with elegant displays back-lit in tony Rome enotecas.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” Brannetti said.

What changed? The city of Rome for one. In 1940, Rome’s population was less than a million. People from around the country, particularly after World War II, descended on the capital for work, for glamour, for food. They didn’t come for wine.

“A lot of people prefer to drink wine from the original family’s birthplace,” Cernilli wrote. “So who came from Campania drink Campanian wines. Who come from Abruzzo prefer Montepulciano, etc. etc.”

Complexus, a Malvasia-Bellone blend, and Tre Vecchie, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, as wineries got handed down, younger minds took over. Instead of producing for bigger companies, they started making their own. It turned about 20-30 years ago, coinciding also with the increase in wine-making technology. In Tuscany, you don’t see many big bottles of Chianti in wicker baskets anymore. Technology improved without raising the production costs. Now you get excellent Chianti Riservas for very reasonable prices.

The same thing happened in Lazio.

“It’s changing,” Benedetti said. “It’s coming back in a great quality way. People have their own vineyard. They do their own wine. I mean small production for 20,000 to 100,000 bottles.”

Lazio wines have a built-in advantage. Most of the soil for the vineyards is volcanic. It’s more natural, meaning they don’t have to add the sulphites and preservatives that American wines do. Those are the ingredients that give you hangovers.

Claudio Loreti and Pino de’ Matti, owner of our Casale delle Ginestre B&B. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Lazio wines are so natural, irrigation is illegal. Actually, there is no need. The volcanic soil can absorb a lot of water and release it when the soil around it is dry.

“It’s amazing,” Benedetti said. “The minerals. The potassium. It’s so rich.”

The world is starting to discover Lazio wines. Before, Frascati was better known in Belgium and the United Kingdom than it was in Rome.

Now Lazio wines are going around the world. Thirty percent of Cantine Santa Benedetta’s wines are sold in 47 U.S. states. They also export worldwide. Brannetti travels to wine fairs around the world.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” she said. “For example, I’m going to take part in a fair, the Millizine Beal in Montpellier (France). When people taste my wines, they are shocked: ‘My God, this is Rome? This is Lazio?’”

Grapes at Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Keep in mind, wine was invented 6,000 years ago and Lazio has only been in the serious wine retail business for about 30. Barolo from Piedmont, my favorite wine in Italy, has been around since 500 B.C. Cantina Le Macchie (www.catinalemacchie.it) in Rieti, 80 kilometers northeast of Rome, produces about 70,000 bottles a year, sells in Belgium and its marketing people hit every wine event they can in Europe.

Still, many restaurants even in Rome don’t carry Lazio wines.

“We haven’t the denomination,” said Stefano Proietti, marketing manager for Cantina Le Macchie. “Barolo is a big and strong denomination. We are young. In Lazio we need more time, but I hope one day we’ll be as renowned as Barolo.”

***

Lazio may not have the luxurious wineries of Tuscany and Piedmont, where visits are akin to country clubs with better beverages. However, they’re worth visiting for a weekend. Cantine Santa Benedetta’s tasting room is 320 years old. That’s nothing. When we arrived, Benedetti showed off a stone road that borders his vineyard. He has the only winery in Lazio with an Ancient Roman road running through it. I could imagine Julius Caesar stopping his march toward the sea to tip back a glass of red on the very stones I stood on.

Cantine Santa Benedetta served the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Too bad he didn’t have the beautiful room where Benedetti took Marina and me. The room was all polished wood with seven glass chandeliers and antique furniture. Old portraits hung on the wall. The only other guests were four New Zealand women. It was like our own private wine tasting.

He started us out with his best seller, a 2018 Complexus, a blend of Malvasia and Bellone, an intense yellow wine with hints of peach, pear, apple and lemon. (That’s Benedetti’s description. I can’t pick what fruit is in a wine unless the glass holds an apple core.)

He then gave us a 2016 Tre Vecchie (Three Old Women), a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend with tastes of mulberries, blackberries and cherries. Lazio is not known for its red wines but this would go well with any pasta in Italy.

Cantine Santa Benedetta has more than 1,000 olive trees. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Cantina Santa Benedetta has an added plus. At many wineries’ tastings, the lone food is breadsticks and cheese sticks as if their target customer is Oliver Twist. Cantina Santa Benedetta goes all out on the food. The first item that came out was a high-end bruschetta (pronounced brew-SKETT-ah, Americans, not brew-SCHETT-ah): sourdough bread refrigerated, then grilled to get out the humidity, then baked, leaving charbroiled stripes on the soft dough. Benedetti then poured over it extra virgin olive oil made from some of their 1,000 olive trees. The olive oil, oozing with flavor, soaked deep in the soft, fresh bread. The combination was so tantalizing Marina and I fought over the last piece. It was the best bruschetta of my life.

Then came a pecorino romano cheese with fresh cherry jam, perfect with the Tre Vecchie red wine. Finally, he finished with bruschetta topped with fresh sliced cherry tomatoes.

The swimming pool at Il Casale delle Ginestre B&B.


Our base for our, ahem, “research” was a beautiful bed & breakfast about 20 miles away, even higher in the hills overlooking Rome. Il Casale delle Ginestre (www.ilcasaledelleginistre.com) is a 500-square-meter, 120-year-old stone house with three two-room apartments and two apartments with shared bath.

Our room had a beautiful view of the valley below but nothing like the panoramic view from the swimming pool, the perfect place to “dry” out after an afternoon drinking wine. I spent the rest of the afternoon floating on an inflatable raft looking way down at the Lazio valley below. The only sounds we heard all weekend were the occasional mews of cats and kittens who hang out on the grounds and offer their furry bodies for petting in exchange for a little food.

Breakfast is in a big lounge near a garden. Sitting down we were served a string of biscuits, fresh yogurt with berries, cheese pie, cornettos, cappuccino and orange juice.

Cats’ meows were about the only noises we heard all weekend. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Il Casale delle Ginestre (named for the nearby 2,500-foot Mount Ginestro) is technically in the town of Castel San Pietro Romano, a 10-minute drive away that is right out of central casting for 1950s Italian cinema. The town of 870 people is a small, tightly packed collection of narrow roads all leading to a small piazza anchored by the 16th century San Pietro Apostolo church. Inside a huge cross hung over the pews, all overlooked by statues of capuchin monks.

Outside in the piazza, locals sat on stoops under plaques commemorating some of the many films shot in the town, complete with still photos from the film shoots. Ironically, Castel San Pietro Romano was a ruin after World War II and Italian directors flocked here in the mid-20th century for films about economic hardship in Italian villages. The films include “Pane, Amore e Fantasia” in 1953 which won the Silver Bear at the 1954 Berlin Film Festival and earned the best actress award, and breakout moment, for a 26-year-old Lazio gal named Gina Lollobrigida. Today, 92-year-old Lollobrigida is still alive and well in Rome and Castel San Pietro Romano is on many lists as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy.

Scenes from Bar al Caffe in Castel San Pietro Romano. Photos by Marina Pascucci


It’s easy to get a pulse of Italian villages. Just go to the local bar and you can’t get any more local, even with a name, than Bar al Caffe. Tucked at the end of a small alley up from the church, Bar al Caffe sits under a line of flower boxes of pink and red flowers. Old men sat at outside tables on plastic chairs drinking wine out of small water glasses and talking in a crude Roman accent. I went in and ordered the house white. The bartender pulled out an oversized bottle from the cooler and poured me a glass of Olevano Romano, a local white table wine.

Sitting around with old men, the sun setting on a beautiful mountain village only 22 miles from Rome, I raised my glass to Marina and said, “Salute! QUESTO e’ viaggiare! (Cheers! THIS is traveling!)”

The lights of Rome from Castel San Pietro Romano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We dined around the corner in Ristorante Gasbarri’s outdoor courtyard, featuring a menu of totally Roman cuisine including a scrumptious pasta amatriciana, the guanciale (pig’s cheek) so lean I could’ve eaten it alone. Afterward, we walked along the stone wall with a spectacular view of the lights of Rome off in the distance.

So who needs Tuscany? Why Piedmont? Veneto? Ha! Some of the best wines in Italy are only a short drive away or, in the case of VyTA and other Rome wine bars, only a tram ride away.

Photo by Marina Pascucci


For those coming to Rome and want to go local, here are the most important Lazio wine varietals to know (in alphabetic order):

* Cesanese
* Malvasia
* Montepulciano
* Sangiovese
* Trebbiano

These are the most important denominations (where the wines are from with Frascati an easy No. 1):

* Frascati
* Montefiascone
* Castelli Romani
* Cesanese del Piglio

15 tips on how to beat the heat in sweltering Rome in July and August

A tourist walks under the sun in front of the Colosseum. Temperatures are in the high 90s this week. AFP photo.


How hot is it in Rome this week? It’s so hot …

… the oracle in Julius Caesar’s hand on the statue near the Forum has been mysteriously replaced with a bottle of Gatorade.

… rats have left their piles of garbage on the streets and checked in at the Marriott.

… the Saudi Arabian Embassy just moved in a beer keg.

OK, I shouldn’t complain. My old United States is melting like gelato. Record temperatures are killing people and electrical grids. Baseball fans in Chicago’s Wrigley Field gave a standing ovation to a slight breeze. The state of Texas has melted into Mexico like dollops of pancake batter on a skillet.

Here in Rome, it’s summer as usual. Temperatures this week range from 93-97 with humidity at a relatively mild 35-50 percent. Screw relativity. Rome is still broiling. July is THE worst month to visit this city, as I wrote four years ago. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Public transportation is cut back to the age of chariots. The biggest impression with which you’ll leave Rome is how in the hell did the Roman Empire survive 900 years with these summers?

August isn’t quite so bad. Half of Rome leaves on vacation, leaving it less crowded but also with many establishments closed. August weather is about the same. If any of you are foolish enough to visit Rome in these two months, you can still enjoy it without drowning in your own pool of sweat.

Do not, however, jump into a fountain. Eight tourists were recently fined 450 euros each for jumping into the Trevi Fountain. Forget the “La Dolce Vita” reenactment. It’s no longer interesting, and it’s no longer free.

This is my seventh summer in Rome. I’ve learned a few things along the way, such as hibernating on my balcony and just eat fruit. I know you visitors can’t do that (You wouldn’t quite fit) so here are 15 tips, A Guide to Roasting Rome (with links to past blogs with more details).

Me at one of the 2,500 nasonis around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Tap water. It’s not illegal to buy bottled water in Rome, but it should be. For 2,000 years Rome has been known for its fantastic tap water. Some of its ancient aqueducts are still in use today, bringing fresh, cold water from the distant mountains to your hotel room. Along with Scandinavia, it’s the best tap water I’ve ever tasted. Instead of spending money on bottled water, go to any bar and order “acqua rubinetto con ghiaccio (tap water with ice).” It’s free and they’ll often bring you a whole pitcher of water with ice on the side. Or you can kneel next to one of the 2,500 cisterns or “nasoni,” the drinking fountains that look like a large nose. Stick your finger over the narrow nose-like opening, and out shoots a stream of fresh, cold water through a hole on top. And it’s cold even in July.

Sperlonga


2. The Beach. Few people know that Rome is on the sea. Its Ostia neighborhood is hard on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is one of many beaches accessible from the city. Ostia’s beach isn’t beautiful. It won’t make you forget Greece. However, it has perfect sand with nary a rock, its water is relatively clean and it’s the perfect temperature. A local train from the Roma Ostia Lido station in the Ostiense neighborhood goes straight to Ostia where you have a short walk to the beach. There are also cheap trains and buses to more beautiful beaches farther south at Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta.

Me at the Sheraton Roma.


3. Pools. Tired of touring? If you’ve seen one more marble statue you’ll turn into one? Find a pool. Rome’s hotels aren’t like Las Vegas’ but most are accessible to the public. A couple times a summer I go to the Sheraton Roma in l’EUR about a 10-minute walk from the EUR Fermi Metro stop. It has a beautiful pool 9 feet deep with padded lounge chairs and a pool bar where they’ll serve you free ice water all day. It’s 20 euros entry and well worth it. But bring snacks. The pool-side menu is expensive. Public pools include Acquaniene in the Parioli neighborhood (15 euros) and Piscina delle Rose (16) also in l’EUR. Here’s a detailed list: https://lolamamma.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/best-swimming-pools-in-rome/.

The world’s most popular food is even more popular now. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Fruit gelato. Everyone eats gelato in Rome, regardless of month. It’s mankind’s favorite food, right? But in summer, go heavy on the fruit flavors. They’re natural. They’re fresh. They’re cool. True Roman gelaterias only use fruit in season. Thus, this month order fragola (strawberry), melone (cantaloupe), pesca (peach), pera (pear), amarena (black cherry), fico (fig). No don’t order fig. Fig sucks. Click here for my five favorite gelaterias in Rome.
5. Museums and churches. It doesn’t matter if your idea of art is a tattoo. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devil worshipper. The one thing you’ll get out of going to Rome’s museums and churches is the cool air. Use the steaming afternoons for your culture ventures. Museums must be air-conditioned to preserve the art and churches somehow are naturally cool, remarkable considering how huge they are. Hey, maybe there is a God.
6. Wear shorts. When I lived here from 2001-03, few men wore shorts. Now it’s chic. However, they must be the right shorts. This is Rome, Italy, not Rome, Georgia. Don’t wear cutoffs. Don’t wear gym shorts. Don’t wear a swimsuit. Wear knee-length shorts with stylish shoes, preferably light shoes such as loafers. You can take advantage of the annual July sale to buy what you need when you arrive.
7. Tour in the morning. Romans get up real early. When in Rome … set your alarm. Or sleep with the drapes open and let the sun wake you up at just before 6 a.m. That’s when I wake. I go across the street to my corner bar, order a cappuccino and cornetto and read the paper in pleasant 75 degrees while the sun comes up. This is the time to hit Rome’s main sights. Go to Piazza Navona before 7 a.m. and you’ll have it nearly all to yourself. I’m a film extra and shot a scene in CBS’ “Blood & Treasure” before dawn at Trevi Fountain. The gurgling torrent of water is even more beautiful when seen without the fountain ringed with cell-snapping tourists.

Lake Nemi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


8. Castelli Romani. This is a series of 14 small towns tucked into the Alban Hills high above Rome southeast of town. Each one has its own attraction: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling, suckling pig so luscious inside fresh bread; Genzano for fresh bread sold all over Rome; Nemi for strawberries; Castel Gandolfo for the pope’s castle retreat above a gorgeous lake. Temperatures drop significantly in these towns and are easy to reach via the COTRAL bus line outside the Anagnina Metro stop or direct train from Termini station.
9. Outdoor clubs at night. I don’t like music but I hear Rome has some good outdoor bars on summer nights. Check out this website for listings and bands: https://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/top-10-outdoor-venues-in-rome-this-summer.html

Mithraeum in Basilicata di San Clemente. Tertullian.org photo


10. Rome underground. This is courtesy of Elyssa Bernard of Romewise: You don’t have to bake at the Forum to see ancient ruins. Rome also has terrific sites underground. Check out the Mithraeum under the Basilicata of San Clemente near the Colosseum. Mithraism was a cult based on Roman mythology in which the god Mithras killed a wild bull and its blood caused plants to grow. Mithraic temples, almost always underground, hosted initiation rites for the Mithraeum followers. Then walk about 500 meters to the Roman houses at Celio where, legend has it, two Roman soldiers lived in the subterranean dwelling until they were beheaded. The houses have 20 highly decorated rooms. Then walk into nearby Parco del Colle Oppio and visit Domus Aurea which Nero built after the fire of 64 AD. Reservations (39-06-3996-7700, http://www.coopculture.it) are highly recommended.
11. Pausa. This is the Italian siesta. From about 1-4:30 p.m., many businesses close. Although Italy’s economic recession has lessened this tradition, many Romans still use this period to take care of personal business, rest, have lunch or visit with friends. When the afternoon heat reaches its peak, go to your air-conditioned room and take a nap. Wake up as the sun starts to set.
11. Lunch inside. One reason I love Rome is I can eat outside about nine months a year. However, in July limit it to breakfast and dinner. Don’t even think about lunch. Even in the shade it’s miserable. The misters many restaurants in Las Vegas and Phoenix and other steaming spots haven’t made their way to Rome. Rome’s restaurants are all air-conditioned and lovely inside. Save the outdoor ambience for the evening.

Marina and me at Terrazza Barromini.


12. Rooftop bars. Speaking of evenings, after the sun sets at about 8:30, head to one of Rome’s many rooftop bars for a cocktail or glass of wine. This is the Rome you’ve read and dreamed about. My two favorites: One, Terazza Barromini atop Palazzo Pamphilj behind the Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone on Piazza Navona. You sit on overstuffed couches while an elegant wait staff whisk drinks to you as you stare out at the rooftops of the churches in Centro Storico. Reservations (39-06-6821-5459) are required. Two, Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican has a beautiful terrace with spectacular views of St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo, the castle Hadrian built and later used as a popes retreat.
13. Ice Club. This is kind of schlocky and can be found in other cities. But when I walk by it on the charming narrow road of Via della Madonna dei Monti in July, I am very tempted to enter. It’s only 15 euros. Inside is 40 tons of ice and 23 degree temperatures. You’re handed a blanket and a menu of different-flavored vodkas. It’s in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum which seems to trap summer heat like a nursery for African violets. I have never visited the Ice Club but some sweltering day I will. Reservations recommended: 39-06-978-45581 or info@iceclubroma.it.

Villa Doria Pamphilj


14. Parks. Believe it or not, Rome has more park acreage than Paris. Our parks just don’t have the cache. Still, they are great places to plop down in the shade by a lake and have a picnic or a bottle of wine. I live in Monteverde just below Villa Doria Pamphilj, a 455-square-acre park covered in Mediterranean pine trees with jogging paths, a huge lake and a 17th century palace once owned by Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. Or go to Villa Borghese and picnic before touring its museum or Villa Ada in the ‘hood of world embassies.
15. Italian craft beer. Italy is the fastest growing beer nation in the world. Twelve years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today there are more than 1,000. They are strong, smooth and varied. You can get IPAs, lagers and Belgian-style ales. My favorite birrerias are Bir & Fud, Via Benedetta 23 in Trastevere, a narrow bar with 30 beers on tap and a small patio, and Open Baladin, a beautiful, back-lit bar near Campo de’ Fiori at Via Degli Specchi 6, featuring 40 beers on tap and many more in a bottle. Here’s a link to a story I did on Rome’s beer boom for BeerAdvocate magazine in 2014. Is drinking beer healthy for beating dehydration? No but screw it. It tastes good.

Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it's my website's lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it’s my website’s lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo


As a sportswriter for 40 years, one of my favorite themes was things that were too hyped or overlooked. Nothing burned the bottom of sports fans’ shorts more than reading that their quarterback is overrated. Nothing made them smile more to know their stadium is underrated. One man’s opinion is another fan’s scorn. It could be anything. Overrated? Jose Canseco. Underrated? Stanford football. Overrated? Dodger Stadium. Underrated? Annapolis, Maryland.

Italy gets more publicity than all of American sports combined. What doesn’t the average traveler know about my adopted country? A lot. Italy isn’t all quiet canals, Dolomites and cappuccinos in dreamy piazzas, ancient islands in an azure sea and endless vineyards in the Tuscan countryside.

It has its sore spots. It doesn’t have many. I struggled to find five overrated places in Italy. But they are there and as you all plan vacations for 2019, here’s a tip sheet: Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations. I’ve been to all of them. Use it as a warning; use it as an insider’s tip. But use it. (They’re in the order of my rage and praise). Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts in the comments section. Those threatening my life please form a line to the right.

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo


MOST OVERRATED
1. Milan.
It’s Newark with a big church. The Duomo is worth a visit. The white facade with 135 spires looks like a birthday cake. But once you get past that, Milan visually pales compared to other Italian cities. Don’t blame the Milanese. It’s not their fault Allied forces bombed the place back to the Stone Age in World War II. But what’s built in its place is too modern to look historical, too old to look clean. The weather is usually awful. Yes, you can see the Alps from there — on July 15, about the only day there’s good enough weather to see past architecture as dull as Milanese cuisine. When your headlining dish is osso buco, a sloppy veal stew, you don’t deserve to be called Italian. The women are attractive if you like anorexics with attitudes and La Scala is nice but who likes opera? Plus, their soccer teams suck. (Forza Roma!)
Cortona. AikrPano photo

Cortona. AirPano photo


2. Cortona. Ever read “Under the Tuscan Sun”? If you didn’t, you’ve never wanted to visit Italy or don’t like self-obsessed chick lit. It’s about a woman building a new life in a fixer-upper in Tuscany, interspersed with Italian recipes. The 1996 blockbuster made Cortona, where author Frances Mayes lived, a must stop on the American tourist’s beaten path in Italy. Americans walk around town carrying her book, trying to identify her butcher, her vegetable stand and florist. Cortonese told me they felt like zoo animals. The truth is, Italy has dozens of quaint, walled cities like Cortona. You don’t need to fight tour buses to see one.
Trieste's Piazza dell'Unita.  Turismo FVG photo

Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita.
Turismo FVG photo


3. Trieste. It figures that James Joyce would live in a town like Trieste for 10 years. I disliked them both. It’s a good debate which one is more boring. Trieste has the biggest seaside piazza in the world. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many. Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia is a massive 130,000-square-foot expanse weighed down like anchors by gray government buildings and two overpriced cafes. There is no brilliant architectural treasure as you’d find in lesser-known piazzas such as Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno or Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo. Also, tucked into Italy’s northeast corner on the north end of the Adriatic, Trieste is constantly plagued by the Bora, the cold wind that sweeps down from the hills surrounding the town.
Capri. Capri photo

Capri. Capri photo


4. Capri. Come here if you want to see or be seen — or stand in line for 30 minutes waiting for a bus to take you zigzagging up the hill. Granted, the hill’s view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea is one of the best in Europe. It’s a lot better than the views of elbows and asses that squeeze past you in the impossibly crowded Piazza Umberto I. The piazza is in Capri town which I wrote in a blog four years ago was “like a playground for millionaire yacht captains.” Capri is “an Italian theme park with better wine.” While the island is beautiful and the sea is inviting, Capri has no beach. None. At one spot I had to pay 21 euros to lay a towel on a rock. Without 500-euro loafers and a 300-euro sweater wrapped strategically around my shoulders I felt like Oliver Twist scavenging for more gruel.
Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo

Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo


5. Costa Smeralda. See above but spread it out for 55 kilometers across the northeast corner of Sardinia without Capri’s views. Costa Smeralda is the epicenter for Italians’ August exodus. It’s lined with stuffy hotels, private marinas and tricked-out yachts. Beautiful, tanned Italians with sunglasses that cost more than their weekly food budget sit on yachts and drink Spritz and wine on the bows of beautiful boats. It’s the height of Italian stuffiness and a magnet for Italians wanting to join the A-list celebs for a glass of Campari. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda’s main town, is as phony as an aging Italian actress’ face. And the prices in August make you wonder if Italy invented price gouging.
Me and Marina at Procida's Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Procida’s Chalet Vicidomini.


MOST UNDERRATED
1. Procida.
I’ve written about this idyllic little island before and I will the rest of my life. It’s right out of a movie set — which it was in 1994 when it was the setting for “Il Postino,” the classic love story about a postman in 1950s Italy who falls in love with a fellow islander. You can relive old Italy here. Just sit on one of the dockside restaurants with a Neapolitan pizza or dine at the heart-throbbing romantic La Lampara above the idyllic harbor and fall in love all over again. Then the next day go to the white sand beach on the north side of the island. Procida is only 10 miles north of Capri but a million miles away in authenticity.
Turin doesn't get the hype of other Italian cities but it's not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

Turin doesn’t get the hype of other Italian cities but it’s not Detroit, either. The Independent photo


2. Turin. Italians used to call Turin the Detroit of Italy. These Italians have never been to Detroit. The only thing Turin and Detroit have in common is car manufacturing except the cars out of Turin actually work. Turin, the gateway to the Italian Alps, is speckled with beautiful piazzas, tree-lined boulevards and long porticoed walkways. The 2006 Winter Olympics gave it a bit of a facelift but two things I love here stayed the same: The Mole, the spired museum dedicated to Italian film, and Barolo, Italy’s best wine and my favorite in the world.
Lake Nemi in Castelli Romani.

Castel Gandolfo in Castelli Romani. Like a Local Guide photo


3. Castelli Romani. One of Rome’s best secrets, Castelli Romani is a series of 14 small towns, many sporting castles, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Each one has its own distinct draw, like gelato has different flavors: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling roast pork eaten at a string of outdoor restaurants; Nemi, on the beautiful volcanic Lago di Nemi, home to great views and some of the best strawberries in the world; Genzano, where many wealthy Romans lived during Ancient Rome and now where Romans go for the best bread around; Castel Gandolfo, on Lago di Albano, so beautiful you’ll see why the popes have their summer residence here; Frascati, blessed with a beautiful park, perfect for a picnic with the town’s trademark refreshing white wine.
Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo


4. Arcipelago di La Magdellena. If you see Costa Smeralda, keep right on going to the point town of Palau and take the 15-minute boat ride to Magdellena. It’s a national park consisting of seven small islands all lined with gorgeous white sand beaches on romantic, individually carved bays. Don’t let the U.S. naval base scare you. The personnel are well behaved and blend in with the kind locals. You need a car and a camera. You’ll want to stop around every curve for a photo.
Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo

Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo


5. Urbino. I call Le Marche Tuscany Light. Le Marche has everything its more famous neighbor has but with a third the tourists and cheaper prices. Urbino is the jewel of Le Marche. High atop a hill, the walled city of 15,000 people is so beautiful UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. The home of the great Renaissance artist Raphael has kept its artsy rep after 600 years. Eat Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta in the dimly lit Palazzo Ducale or just settle in with a glass of Le Marche’s trademark Verdicchio white wine.