Beyond the Romance

My husband is an Instagram junkie. If Instagram addicts had a 12-step program, he’d be the poster child. It’s not a bad thing. He’s good with a photo, quick with a caption, great at capturing that elusive “perfect moment.”  He brings people, places and things to life, gives them personality, makes them accessible. Truth be told, he’s a romantic, and he brings that sense of romance to his photos. He makes people envy what he sees and want to be a part of it. Who doesn’t want to fall a little in love, even for a moment?


Problem is, they’re “snapshot” moments. My Italian houseguest, Livia, asked me to explain the concept of a “snapshot” recently. I told her a snapshot is an idealized moment in time, one second of an entire experience captured for posterity. It only seems representative of the whole. In reality, it’s deceptive, a sleight of hand. Like most of life, it’s contrived by the author to tell part of a story, the part he or she wants to share. An experienced person always knows there is more. Or should, in this day and age of constant social media manipulation of us mere mortals.


Why am I on this harangue about romance versus reality? Well, my business is travel and half of providing travel that satisfies is capturing the romance of the moment. My work is to create unique, intimate, unforgettable experiences for my guests. To get to the unique, intimate and unforgettable part, I search out interesting people doing interesting things in the world of artisan food and wine production in Italy and Spain. The odd beekeeper in the center of Milan. The woman in the hills of the Roero keeping her grandmother’s confection, condiment and conserve recipes alive. The self-taught 21-year old high school drop-out successfully running his family’s vineyard, after nearly running away from winemaking altogether.


My guests and I may be the travelers, but these folks are on the real journey. And while we’re seduced by the romance of these old-world, artisan-centric stories, beneath the surface, there’s an underlying reality that is bone-crushingly difficult.

Meetings take place after the business owners have spent a long day in the vineyard, are halfway out the door to a much-needed vacation following weeks and weeks of 18-hour days, in the middle of the olive harvest, or in a 100° kitchen as the chef wipes his hands clean at the close of service in a 5-star restaurant.

How do they do it? They’re fueled by passion, by heritage, by pride, by a love of sharing and by a refusal to fail. When I ask for their hashtag, they tell me they don’t have the time for social media. But they’re social media stars, nonetheless, having enviable lives, at least in a snapshot.

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My friends often tell me they are “taking a social media vacation.” They remark that there are times when they just can’t tolerate their own feelings of jealousy or envy (or loneliness? or isolation?) when they happen across a particularly emotionally engaging photo.

My advice is always the same: you, too, have lived similar moments. You, too, will live them again. It’s just your heart telling you it’s time to shut down your computer, take a risk, and make another memory. More than that, be happy for your social media friends reveling in their social media moments. Believe me, there is always more to the (back)story.

So the next time you feel a twinge of envy over a seemingly perfect snapshot moment, remember the words Earth, Wind + Fire sing so eloquently in Shining Star: “life ain’t always what it seems, oh yeah.” Instead find a little inspiration to go out and make your own memories. Or at least, take a new profile picture.

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Salad Days in Piemonte

We’d spent three action-packed days exploring Expo 2015 and the culinary and cultural fabulousness that is Milan. We’d sweltered in 100+ degree heat and walked a combined 15+ miles. We’d eaten enough for an army. We were tired, cranky and, frankly, I just wanted a salad.

But from the moment the white-gloved server tucked a small, crimson-velvet footstool beside my feet and discreetly whispered in my ear, “It’s for your handbag,” I was worried my humble craving would go unsatisfied.

Jonathan, the footstool and I were in the restaurant of the sumptuously appointed Castello di Guarene in the Roero region of Piedmont, Italy, on the fourth day of a “discovery” trip for my unique travel adventures. We were road-testing the Castello for the October trip, and so far, every detail exceeds my expectations.


Assuming the kitchen is up to the standards of the rest of the property, my yearning for a simple, satisfying salad is fading fast, too pedestrian an offering for a perfectly appointed hotel dining room.

I’d heard from colleagues in Piemonte that the Castello’s Chef, Davide Odore, is a rising culinary star. Young, creative, and talented, he’s helmed his own restaurant, Io e Luna, for several years, earning a reputation as a chef who builds on tradition, regional cuisine and local, seasonal sources.


At one point, he said, “For me, innovation is a way of expressing the past … but with innovative ideas and methods.” I’ll take innovation, as long as it is crispy and well-dressed.

I’ve always thought that a restaurant is only as good as it’s simplest salad. Let’s face it, salads are tough to get right. Gritty, wilted, or soggy greens are never acceptable. It takes real skill to prepare a great salad, let alone dress one properly. All things relative, Davide Odore agrees, but with a nod to innovation and technique.


Like everything else at the Castello, Chef Odore over-delivers in a unique, whimsical and thoroughly satisfying way. Behold his Bouquet di Verdure, a sweet little posy of a composed salad, each vegetable perfectly blanched and artfully arranged. The flower centers boast vegetable purees, or passate, light, airy and redolent with the essential flavors and colors of the vegetable at its origin. A hint of fresh strawberry for color and sweetness, and thin slivers of fresh summer truffle, because, well, why not?, and summer arrives on a plate for me to savor. It is light, refreshing, and visually extraordinary, like the perfect summer day.

As I grab my bag from its crimson perch, I leave satisfied, both of appetite, and spirit, already looking forward to sampling Davide’s full menu. Stay tuned.




Sicily + Piedmont, October, 2015

Yes, my bags are packed again. This time, we’ll be bookending the best of Italy in October as we explore western Sicily, and then venture north to Turin and Barolo country and truffles! What could be better? You joining us, of course!

This trip is sold out. But please read on!

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Tripe? Truffles? Tastings? It’s a Barolo Trifecta.

The annual Tripe Festival. Of course! What else would make the already virtually impassable winding mountaintop roads of Barolo, Italy narrow even further with cars parked haphazardly along both sides? On the sunny October Sunday afternoon of our visit to the famed Marchesi di Barolo Winery it was the tripe festival. Who could’ve guessed? We add our van to the line-up, then walk to see what all the fuss is about.

Tripe is popular here, so popular that hundreds of visitors come to quaint Barolo, population 750, to sample Zuppa di Trippa, tripe soup, made with local favorites, Nucetto chickpeas. Or salame ‘d Tripa ‘d Muncalé, Moncalieri’s tripe salame. Still not satisfied? How about Rustia, a tripe spread? Clearly a whole lotta people here love tripe. They amble from table to table, tasting fork in one hand, hunk of crusty bread in the other, jam-packing the narrow lanes of this medieval town perched on a hilltop in the famed Barolo wine producing region of Alba.


Unimpressed by the overhead banner that heralds A Tutta Trippa! (Everything Tripe!), we head straight to the Cantina Marchesi di Barolo, the lure of our private truffle dinner and wine tasting overpowering any other gustatory alternative. Not that tripe even makes our short list. We’re game to try lots of new foods in Italy, and the group has ventured well outside their culinary comfort zone both here and at Salone del Gusto. But tripe? Not so much. Continue reading

Hunting Truffles and Finding Friends

She was supposed to know more about the backroads around Monforte d’Alba than I do. It was the sole purpose of inviting her on our trip. But the prissy British woman tagging along in the small illuminated square on the dashboard is just as lost as the rest of us.

“Make a legal u-turn when possible,” she directs us haughtily, an obvious and somewhat condescending piece of advice since we have no other option. Held hostage by her incompetence, Jonathan, our driver and my husband, our passengers and I sigh collectively from the relative luxury of our ride, a three-row Mercedes Vito van. All except Steph, who has taken refuge, from both motion sickness and wrong turns, in the safe harbor oblivion of her Apple earbuds.

We found ourselves at a dead end, sandwiched between a small railway station and a one-story row of rose-colored buildings reminiscent of a too-cheery suburban shopping mall. A man lounged outside one of the doors that lined its flank, his camo pants a stark contrast to the fiery red of his Fiat Uno, calmly having a smoke, watching the show.

Rolling down my window, I stutter in my nearly useless Italian, “Do you know how to get to Via Monchiero Alto?”  In the languid way of Italians, he pulls his free hand from the warmth of his pocket and circles it abstractly above his head, glowing butt hanging from his lips, motioning toward the road rising past the fence beyond the train station. “There,” he said, “It’s just there.”  Ahhh. There. So close, but yet so far.

By the time we had taken our disembodied Kate Winslet’s only good advice and banged a U-ie, our friend has extinguished his smoke, grabbed his keys, and is waiting in the middle of the road. Returning to my window, he asks, “Are you going truffle-hunting? Are you going to Tra Arte e Querce? Come. I’ll take you there.” I smile in relief, he smiles in understanding, heading for his car. We are off.

Kate, you may be beautiful, have kissed Leonardo DiCaprio, won an Oscar and are aging far more gracefully than I ever will, but at this moment an Italian hybrid of Rambo and the Marlboro Man is my hero. We follow, as I dig through my bag for a 5 Euro note, a small gesture of thanks to Camo-Man for his help. Less than three minutes later, we arrive at our destination. I make my offer; he graciously declines with another engaging smile and a shake of his head.


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An embarrassment of riches.

Before each of my Morso Soggiorno tours, I travel to Italy to take a “dry run” of my own trip. Makes sense, right? I research my trips intensively, write long emails and anxiously await replies, read reviews, get references from trusted sources. I make phone calls at all hours of the day and night in Italian so broken it could make your ears bleed. But none of that considerable effort stands in for a little face time. My in-person meetings are beyond fruitful and serve a couple of purposes, aside from getting me to Italy, which, it goes without saying, is an amazing benefit.

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Italy surprises me. Again.

I’ve been hawking my upcoming tour to Salone del Gusto in October pretty much nonstop. I think it’s a great trip, having attended Salone del Gusto in 2012 (you can see my blogs about it here and here.) But it occurs to me, my foodie bias is showing. I’ve been so focused on all the greatness that is Salone — the wines, the artisan and craft foods, the star-chef dinners, the cooking classes, the workshops — did I mention the wines? — that I almost broke my own first rule of the Morso travel experiences I curate: discover undiscovered Italy. Boy, was I ever reminded of the importance of my own mission on my recent “test run” to Turin and Alba in mid-July.

So, before I begin to wax effusive about Turin, a little background. Over the years, I’ve visited or passed through Turin a few times, two of them very memorable. On my first visit, in 1990, my husband, Jonathan, and I capped off a one-month second honeymoon with a one-night stay in Turin. It almost led to divorce. Why? Where do I start?

First, it was Ferragosto, the time of year in Italy when any sane person, Italian or otherwise, avoids the cities and escapes to their vacation home for a month or more. Restaurants are “chiuso per ferie,” closed for holiday, as are small businesses. The sidewalks are rolled up. The streets, deserted. I was in Rome once during Ferie, and the only other living creatures for miles around were the cats at the Torre Argentina.

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