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Episode #146: Best Food and Wine Gifts to Bring Back from Italy

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Buying food and wine gifts for friends and family (or yourself) is an enjoyable part of any trip to Italy! As it’s almost Christmas time, we’re sharing gift ideas of things you can bring back from an Italy vacation, and for those who’ve already been or haven’t been (yet), we’ve got some things that you can also order online for your Italian-loving loved ones, or to help you relive delicious Italian memories. 

Show notes

We talk to Toni Mazzaglia, a food guide from Taste Florence about some of the wonderful food gifts you can bring back from your trip to Italy. Originally from the US, after first visiting Italy in the late 90s, Toni fell in love with the country so much that she canceled her planned Study Abroad year in Spain to spend more time there. She then returned for good in 2002 to study, doing food and wine photography and later running food tours in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Florence where she lives, which she’s been doing for 15 years. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Toni was working in a winery and found many people would say how much they loved the lunch and would say, oh, this is the best thing we’ve eaten on our whole trip and that they’d been so disappointed with the food in Italy. This, of course, horrified her (she hadn’t given up her photography career and moved to Italy because of bad food!). She discovered they were just eating the wrong food at the wrong time – like pizza slices in Florence (have those in Rome) – partly because this was a time before so much internet content (and TripAdvisor). She started doing food tours because she wanted to make sure that people weren’t leaving Italy thinking that the food was not as amazing as it is
  2. Untold found Katy, joined Toni on her food tour on her recent trip to Italy and was delighted to find bites she’s never even heard of – like the beef brisket sandwich with green sauce (the green sauce is known for going with Lampredotto – the famous Florentine tripe sandwich)
  3. Food tours are so great to try new things, especially if it’s something you don’t fancy at all – because you can try such small bites, it’s not intimidating and it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it (though there’s a huge chance you will!). Toni loves to convert people who think they are not that into food
  4. On her tours, Toni points out lots of food and wine options that you can bring home from a trip, some of which Katy had never thought of –  which is what inspired this episode!

Toni’s Best 30 Food Gift Ideas:

  1. Limoncello
    The famous lemon liqueur from Southern Italy – particularly Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast and a firm favorite of many Italy lovers. Listen to our episode Limoncello – simply the zest!
  2. Vermouth
    There are lots of beautiful types of vermouth being produced in Italy now – not just the classic ones. If you’re not a big liquor person, like Toni, Vermouth is like a marriage between wine and hard alcohol and it has beautiful, complex notes to it. There’s a big vermouth tradition up in the Piedmont region, in Northern Italy. It can be a really nice option in cold weather.
    Top Tip: bottle protector sleeves (like wine wings) are great for bringing bottles safely back in your luggage
  3. Sun Dried tomatoes from Pachino in Sicily
    Tiny cherry tomatoes that are full of flavor and sweetness. You have to really rinse them before you cook with them as they’re preserved in salt.  Toni has some dishes on her Instagram for inspiration
  4. Cheeses 
    It’s great to get the best quality cheeses like Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano. You can find Parmigiano Reggiano in many countries, but it is way, way more expensive than if you buy it in Italy so if you love it, it’s worth getting a big hunk of it vacuum-packed as a gift for yourself. Everybody gets Pecorino Romano outside of Italy, but there are so many better and different varieties and types – you can have it young, medium-aged, super-aged, with truffle in it, with walnut leaves, ashes or tomato on the outside, with the pistachios in it. Pecorino Seggiano is a delicious choice
    Note – remember soft cheeses are not allowed for travel outside the EU
  5. Chocolate
    Italy makes great chocolate. It’s less sugary and milky than many countries are used to and richer. Seek out those local chocolate shops, but even the more mass-produced chocolate can also be really nice. In Piedmont, they have the Giandujotto – the chocolate blended with hazelnuts. You can get decent brands even at the airport but is a special one to look out for:
    Vestri – they have their own cacao plantation in Santo Domingo. The product is amazing and they also have beautiful packaging making it all the more special for a gift choice. Their original shop is in Arezzo and they have a shop in Florence and you can also order online
  6. Coffee-related
    Coffee beans and coffee gadgets both make great gifts. and gadgets. You can get like a little Moka, the classic Italian little stove top coffee-maker that was invented by Bialetti. You can find these on Amazon and other home stores generally nowadays
  7. Biscotti
    Biscotti translates to twice baked, so all cookies are called biscotti, and then each place kind of has a formal name for them. The ones that we’re calling biscotti around the world in Tuscany, where they call them Cantuccini. In Rome, they called them Tozzetti and they are hazelnut instead of almond. There are lots of other kinds of beautiful cookies, such as Baci di dama, with 2 chocolate hazelnut cookies with a filling. The Katy goes beautifully with the sweet wine Vin Santo
  8. Nuts
    There are lots of amazing nuts and nut-based products in Italy. you have wonderful pistachios, pine-nuts, almonds, and walnuts. The two that are worth bringing home with you though, are the Pistacchi (pistachio) and Pinoli (pine-nuts). Nut spreads too, like pistachio paste. While Nutella is usually milk chocolate and hazelnut, the pistachio spreads tend to be made with white chocolate or condensed milk to enhance the really rich pistachio flavor. There are alternative hazelnut and chocolate spread alternatives to Nutella, that are on a whole different level too. Vestri does white, dark, and milk chocolate versions, as well as a dairy-free one
  9. Olive Oil
    The olive oil you get outside of Italy is usually not fresh. Unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that makes olive oil, it’s hard to get really good, high-quality oil. So it is worth taking up some suitcase space. The main things are you want Extra Virgin and to look for fresh. They are about to start pressing at the end of October, so you don’t want to buy oil from 2021 after that because the 2022 is going to come out. And you definitely don’t want oil from 2020 because it’s now two years old. They make great oil all around Italy. Tuscans love their oil, the Umbrian love their oil, the Puglian love their oil, and you can get great ones in all these different places. The number one thing to look for is just freshness and an extra virgin combination. Castello del Trebbio is a good Tuscany brand. Never buy a giant tin or jug. That’s never going to be a good thing unless you buy directly from a producer. 
    Top Tip: don’t save your oil for special occasions. If you get the high-quality extra virgin that cost 30 Euros a bottle, it’s not going to be good three years from now, so use it!
  10. Balsamics
    Unlike olive oil, balsamic vinegar gets better with age. The best comes from Modena or Reggio Emelia and it’s a unique and very special taste. When you have the real balsamic, the DOP, on a high-quality, just plain gelato, or a simple vanilla custard – they’re perfect together. This amazing quality balsamic can be ordered directly from an acetaia like Acetaia Biancardi. These acetaias are amazing places to visit. Like a winery, you are visiting (or staying in) the house of these people and in the attic, there are dozens and dozens of barrels. And each dozen or so barrels belongs to a different family member. It’s a mixture of tradition, history, science, and a little bit of magic
  11. Mostarda
    These are sauces, like a chutney, that go with your cheeses. Sometimes they have mustard seeds in, which is where they get the name and it gives them a little zing. They can be sweet or tangy – they can be made from all sorts, like pear, fig, red onion, peppers, and pumpkin. They are really interesting and fun and make great gifts because they come in little jars
  12. Olives
    So you have got the green ones, black ones, spicy ones but also just so many kinds depending on where you are. They are delicious and synonymous with Italy
  13. Capers and caper berries
    You buy them in a jar covered in salt and they are a distinctive flavor and add a zing to many dishes. Many places are now doing fried capers as well. A great gift for a chef or someone who loves cooking
  14. Bottarga
    The pouch of the fish roe (usually mullet or tuna), is salted and cured. The most famous place for Bottarga is the island of Sardinia. It’s a really condensed fish roe and something you flavor things with. You can just grate it over your pasta – so maybe a dish of some pepper flakes, butter or olive oil, a garlic clove or two, and the Bottarga on a plate of spaghetti
  15. Colatura di alici
    It’s a lot of Asian fish sauce. In Roman times when they were making anchovies and sardines, anything under salt, they didn’t want to miss out on that yummy juice, so they would put containers underneath to catch the dripping. They sell that in a bottle and you just put that on things like pasta
  16. Nero di seppia
    They have little packets of the Nero di seppia that you can get for 3 Euro at a grocery store in Italy. You put them in your refrigerator, and until you open them, they’ll last a couple of months. You put that in a risotto or pasta like really nice thick spaghetti or linguine. There’s a place in the countryside outside of Florence that makes spaghetti with Nero di seppia, fresh ginger, and mussels. Another combination that sounds like it wouldn’t work but does is Nero di seppia and sage
  17. Saffron
    It grows in Sardinia and in Tuscany. It was an important crop during medieval times around San Gimignano and it even used to be used as a currency. Castello del Trebbio as well as producing olive oil, also sell saffron
  18. Pasta
  19. Rice
  20. Polenta
    These 3 might seem obvious but they’re worth mentioning as the quality of what you can bring home is fantastic and you can get things you just won’t be able to get at home. It just tastes different and you’ll find great pasta sauces that you can bring back too – ragu sauce or a good pesto
  21. Herbs & spices
    Oregano – the stuff you get outside of Italy is nothing like the real one, especially from Sicily and Calabria. That’s worth bringing home under vacuum, packing, dry again if you’re outside of the EU
    Pepperoncino – the spicy dry peppers from Calabria – you can get them whole, as seeds of the powder
    Fiore di finocchio – the fennel flower, like the flower of the wild fennel plant. And then they dry it and that it doesn’t weigh anything and it’s really good on everything. You can’t bring that back to some countries like Australia
    Aromi toscani – the mix the butchers make of rosemary, sage, salt, pepper, garlic, and fennel seeds all mashed together. It’s a beautiful rub for things like potatoes, fish, lamb, and chicken
  22. Truffled stuff
    Toni’s recent find from a stall in her local market is dehydrated truffle in a pepper shaker/grater and you can just grate it straight over things. Savini tartufi in Tuscany is incredible for truffle products – they have truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle butter, and truffle cream. They also have a unique product which is dwarf peaches (olive-sized peaches), pickled in truffle oil. Makes a fabulous addition to a martini!!! 
  23. Porcini mushrooms
    Dry porcini mushrooms are a great addition to any pantry – you can get all kinds vacuum packed
  24. Wine and wine gadgets
    Beautiful corkscrews and wine accessories are always a great gift. A popular item at the moment is a Centellino which is a doser and decanter. It aerates the wine as you’re pouring it and it also measures out a perfect glass. If you’re having a dinner party or opening a really special bottle of wine and you wanted to make sure everyone got exactly the right amount, it’s the perfect thing. A great gift for wine lovers
  25. Olive wood
    You can get lots of gorgeous things for your kitchen made out of olive wood, like chopping boards (tagliere), and spoons. There are gorgeous artisan shops to be found in Italy itself, but generally, they don’t ship out. Arte Legno has some lovely pieces and ships out of Italy
  26. Ceramics
    You can get beautiful bowls for your salads and your pasta. Toni suggests if you’re going to buy one ceramic thing, make it a good container to put your olive oil in – because not only will you have something gorgeous but it keeps out the light and is good for temperature which is great for the oil
  27. Knives
    North of Florence in Scarperia, they make beautiful handmade knives, as they do also in Sardinia. If someone makes a knife for you, it’s considered a very special thing. It’s something that traditionally you made for a family member for a special occasion. We might use our knives to cut our pecorino cheese now, but back in the day the knives were used for hunting, preparing what you hunted, and even for defense – so they meant survival. Fontani sells some beautiful pieces
  28. Venetian glass
    Alongside the vases and ornaments you might think of when you think of Venetian glass, there are also some examples of gorgeous, delicate glass that can be pricey, but well worth it, especially as a gift or to treat yourself
  29. Ginori dishes
    Originating in the 18th century, Richard Ginori of Florence, Ginori creates stunning porcelain pieces. As well as classic designs, you can also find some classics with modern twists. The kind of things that are life-times pieces for yourself or as gifts
  30. Honey
    There are all kinds of honey, but Toni has a top 3:
    Chestnut – has some umami and some bitterness to it
    Corbezzolo – (known as the strawberry tree) is thought to be really healthy
    Truffle – delicious and a just a little bit more special

About our guest – Toni Mazzaglia


Toni Mazzaglia has lived in Florence for 20 years. Though she started as a food and locations photographer, Toni gravitated to culinary studies, eventually attending Sommelier classes, living in a winery, and launching Taste Florence Food Tours in 2007.
She spends most of her time trying new places, testing recipes and tasting wine. Her passion is to share the culinary masterpieces of Italy with visitors.

Check out Toni’s Italy Fix Shopping List and Florence Visitor’s Guide (you can find Anglo world shop links at the bottom of the page)

You can find Taste Florence on these channels:

Food & Drink

  • lampredotto – Florentine tripe sandwich
  • Parmigiano Reggiano – a cheese (the king of cheeses) from a very specific part of the region and created to exacting standards to get the stamp
  • Baci di dama – meaning ‘Lady’s kisses’, a sandwich cookie of two hazelnut cookies joined together by chocolate
  • Van Santo – sweet, dessert-style wine from Tuscany that goes great with their Cantuccini
  • LAceto Balsamico Tradizionale – this vinegar from cooked grape must, has to age at least 12 years in wooden barrels to be classified in this way
  • acetaia -​​ vinegar cellar/producer
  • porchetta – roasted rolled pork made in slightly different ways and popular in Rome, Tuscany and Umbria
  • Corbezzolo – a honey made from flowers of the corbezzolo tree, known as a ‘strawberry tree’ in English
  • Roscioli – restaurant in Rome that also ships out amazing food products globally
  • KM Zero Tours – Chianti based tour company who also ship out wonderful Tuscan products and gift baskets

Places mentioned in the show

  • Lucca – Tuscan walled medieval city
  • Perugia – a medieval city in Umbria
  • Assisi – a town in Umbria that is the birthplace of St. Francis
  • San Lorenzo – neighborhoods in central Florence
  • Arezzo – lesser-visited Tuscan city which is a great base for visiting Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche regions
  • Pachino – town in Sicily, whose name derives from the Latin word bacchus, which is the Roman god of wine
  • Seggiano – town in southern part of Tuscany
  • Bronte – town in Sicily famous for its pistachios
  • Modena and Reggio Emilia– cities in Northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna region famous for their Balsamic Vinegar
  • Acetaia Sereni – agriturismo and balsamic producer in Emilia Romagna 
  • Spilamberto – famous for Balsamico Tradizionale 
  • Syracuse – ruins in Sicily
  • Scarperia – town in Northern Tuscany, famous for its knives
  • Santa Margherita Ligure – town on Ligurian coast
  • Seghezzo – amazing store in Santa Margherita Ligure
  • Enoteca Alessi – wine store in Florence with an incredible selection (and sell the Centellino)

Resources

  • Citysearch – online city guide with info on business services such as dining, retail and travel
  • wine wings – great for packing bottles in your luggage
  • Alfonso Bialetti – Italian engineer who invented the Moka stove top coffee maker
  • Guilia – from travelwithrezdora.com is a guide in Emilia Romagna and shows people the best balsamic vinegar

Resources from Untold Italy

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