Gourmet Backpacking Part 5: Italy

Left: Picturesque Perugia. Center: Italian Picnic. Right: The Coliseum at night

Left: Picturesque Perugia. Center: Italian Picnic. Right: The Coliseum at night

Italy was the last leg of our trip and we were exhausted. Florence greeted us with dreary grey skies and heavy rain, adding to our feelings of fatigue. As much as we enjoyed traveling, it was really starting to take a toll on us, both mentally and physically. Our packs were feeling heavier each day and we were beginning to long for the comforts of home.

Determined to end with a bang we decided that Italy would be about complete and utter indulgence. It was our last chance to carb-load, eat gelati several times a day and drink wine with every meal. We weren’t holding out for anything.

Trattoria Mario

Trattoria Mario

Wasting no time we decided to escape the weather and take a leisurely Italian lunch. As we wandered the streets, we spotted people gathered outside a tiny restaurant called Trattoria Mario. Convinced the line-up was a good sign, we put our names on the list for a seat. After a short wait we followed our server through a busy dining room to one of the eight tables where we were seated next to a little Italian man with a big personality.

We ordered a ½ litre of house wine, a beautifully smooth Chianti. The names of classic Tuscan dishes were scribbled on a piece of paper posted on the kitchen window, serving as a daily menu.  I opted for the ribollita, a humble Tuscan vegetable soup bolstered with stale bits of bread that absorbed the broth like fluffy little dumplings. Laced with creamy white beans and tender onions, the soup was finished with a healthy drizzle of olive oil elevating it above its peasant status.

My travel buddy ordered spaghetti with tomatoes and basil, which I immediately passed as a boring choice—until I tasted it. The al dente pasta was coated beautifully in fruity olive oil and sweet tomato sauce and topped with bright, fragrant basil. Both dishes were so simple, but tasted as if they were more than the sum of their parts. Just when we thought we had reached our quota of food and wine our Italian table mate ordered us a round of grappa and insisted that we share his plate of red-wine braised beef. It was an incredibly authentic Italian dining experience.

From urban Tuscany we headed to rural Umbria where we stayed at a beautiful hostel on a hobby farm just outside of the medieval town of Perugia. We spent a day in town, wandering the cobblestone streets and perusing artisan booths. For lunch we headed to Il Cantinone, an unpretentious restaurant on a meandering side street near the town centre.

The decor was rustic yet refined, with domed brick ceilings and long tables covered with crisp white tablecloths. We ordered a carafe of table wine and sat back and watched in awe as the exuberant lunching families around us passed plates, shrieked with laughter and ordered more and more wine.


Ribollita at Trattoria Mario

Craving carbs, I ordered linguini with rabbit, rosemary and lemon. As far as pasta goes, its perfection was unparalleled. Finely minced pieces of robust rabbit decorated the silky housemade pasta and a glossy, buttery sauce coated everything beautifully. Earthy rosemary and heavenly lemon zest perfumed the dish for an otherworldly experience. I ate it, in a trance, amazed that such a simple dish could be so deeply, satisfyingly delicious.

We ended our Italian adventure in Rome, where we spent our days with our eyes wide and jaws dropped, in awe of the incredible Roman art and architecture that decorated the vast city.

We avoided the pricey restaurants around the main tourist attractions and embraced the Italian picnic, which always consisted of a big chunk of cheese, silky prosciutto and some peppery arugula dressed with fruity olive oil. We sampled several Italian cheeses from nutty Piave to salty Parmesan, but the king of them all was Caciocavallo, an intensely sharp sheep’s milk cheese. As we sat in the piazzas and savoured our Italian treasures, it became apparent that the intensity of the cheese rivaled that of the Italian spirit. Fiery conversations, wild gesticulations and passionate public displays of affection took place in wild abundance around us.

To supplement our picnic lunches we indulged in gelati at every opportunity. Our favourite was Il Gelatone, a cramped little joint offering a view of the Coliseum and heaping helpings for €4. Of the multitude of flavours we sampled the ricotta and cinnamon was the winner. Reminiscent of cheesecake, its texture was luxuriously thick and creamy with just a hint of sweetness.

The richness of Italian history, culture and food came together to create the perfect send-off for two very tuckered gourmet backpackers.


Trattoria Mario. Via Rosina 2r, 50123 Florence, Italy.  

Il Cantinino. Via Ritorta 6 06123. Perugia, Italy.

Il Gelatone. Via Serpenti, 28 00184. Rome, Italy.


— Courtney Schwegel

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