Old Vine Cafe Chef Mark McDonald on His Splendid Culinary Tours of South Italy

Twenty minutes. That’s how long it takes to cross the waters of the infamous Messina Strait between Calabria to Sicily. It’s also how long you have to make your way to the top floor of the ferry to buy an arancino at the food counter. The fried rice mixed with melted cheese, meats and vegetables is shaped into a cone, an edible homage to nearby Mt. Etna.

People often tell me they’ve “already done Italy,” noting time spent visiting Rome, Florence or Venice. While these cities are beautiful, it’s like saying you’ve been to Chicago and New York, so you’ve “done the United States.” So much of southern Italy is completely untouched because tourists rarely make it farther south than Rome. I partnered with my longtime mentor, master chef John Nocita, and the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) to launch the now-annual Splendors of South Italy tours, and for the past seven years, we’ve led groups on culinary and gastronomic tours through the country’s two southernmost regions: Calabria and Sicily. Thanks to popular demand from our past travelers, we started the Splendors of North Italy trip in 2016.

Beyond the tourist traps of the major cities, Italy is a country brimming with tens of thousands of regional culinary traditions ranging from the simplistic to the decadent. Regional is the key word: Each region—and often each individual town—is known for a specific dish, an ingredient or a special preparation.

Tempted by cannoli in Venice? Order at your own risk; the freshest, best cannoli are made in a laboratorio pasticceria (a pastry lab) 750 miles south in Messina, Sicily, where competing labs line a major thoroughfare. Seeking out the elusive truffle-shaped, ice cream dessert tartufo di Pizzo? Time to make your way to the secluded coastal town in Calabria it’s named for; there, you can enjoy the treat while sitting on a café patio in the town square.

In 2006, I moved to Calabriato to complete a masters program in Regional Italian Cuisine and Culture at ICI. From Chef John, I learned about the evolution of Italian cuisine; I took courses on artisan baking and pastry, cheese making, charcuterie, conserves, gelato production, and more.

The experience was life-changing and completely shifted my approach to working with seasonal ingredients, respecting the regional nature of Italian dishes, and appreciating a cuisine that focuses on freshness and flavor, not gimmicks and trends. After finishing the program, I returned to Southern California to open Old Vine Café in Costa Mesa. Although it’s not strictly an Italian restaurant, nothing influences my cuisine more than the time I’m able to spend in southern Italy each year cooking with some of the freshest raw ingredients in the world.

Now in our seventh year, our trips take guests through Calabria and Sicily and feature hands-on cooking instruction and pasta-making alongside master chefs, visits to sustainable wineries, and access to ancient historical and cultural sites such as the ruins of Roccelletta di Borgia in Calabria; the ancient Greek theater that overlooks the beautiful town of Taormina; Mount Etna; and the Ionian Sea. For many of our travelers, the leisurely afternoon spent at an agriturismo—a sustainable farm where all food products are grown, raised and produced—is an unforgettable culinary experience. We see abundant vegetable gardens; watch goats, pigs and other livestock roaming free on the rolling hillsides; and hike to a vista point to gaze across the countryside, the ocean peeking between the hills in the distance. The delicious smells from the kitchen reach us with the breeze.

Dining at an agriturismo means spending three to four hours sharing wine with friends while sampling a wide variety of freshly made regional dishes. The family who runs the agriturismo will start with plates overflowing with antipasti, which include plump olives, cured meats, an assortment of vegetables drizzled with deeply flavorful olive oil, and a special treat: fresh sheep’s milk cheese. Made only two hours ago, it’s still warm and melts in your mouth. Add a dab of the bright-red marmalade made from sweet, spicy Calabrian chile peppers for a perfect pairing.

Then come handmade pastas, freshly baked artisan breads, traditional vegetable dishes, meats cooked to perfection, desserts and more. At the end of the meal, it’s time to sample the family’s homemade digestive liqueurs: limoncello and amaro. As its name suggests, the limoncello is flavored with lemons. The amaro is both bitter and sweet, rich and herbal.

Fresh off the plane from Calabria, luggage packed with culinary treasures, Chef John and I spend days in the kitchen cooking.

Whether you join us in the South or the North, Chef John and I follow the same philosophy: If you travel with us, then you’re family. What starts as a group of strangers—young couples, groups of girlfriends, single folks, people celebrating anniversaries, parents and their adult children, those making their first trip to Europe, seasoned travelers, retirees—turns into a famiglia.

I’ve seen unofficial reunions unfold at Old Vine Café when past travelers find they’re dining on the same evening as others, especially at the restaurant’s annual anniversary party. When Chef John makes his yearly visit to Costa Mesa, the reservation books are packed with names dating back to our first tour. It’s an evening with food and friends that for just a few hours transports us all back to those weeks we shared in Italy, dining and traveling along the Ionian Sea.

The next Splendors of North Italy tour is set for Oct. 21-30, and the next Splendors of South Italy tour is March 23-April 1, 2018. For more information, visit www.oldvinecafe.com, or to book a trip, email McDonald at chefmarkmcdonald@yahoo.com.

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