How to Enjoy Your Your Italian Cooking Vacation

Updated 2018.

You’re off to Italy on a cooking school tour you’ve been dreaming of for years, perhaps in the magnificent Barolo wine country in Piedmont or on the east coast in Sicily with views of the Mediterranean and snow-capped Mount Etna. You want to enjoy your sensual experiences to the maximum: the beauty, the countryside, food, cooking lessons, wine tasting, sightseeing and visits with locals. Here are some tips on getting all the joy possible out of your Italian cooking vacation, gleaned from my 12 years of experience creating and leading cooking tours in Italy:

Assert yourself in the kitchen.

Some cooking school participants say, “The cooking classes were hands-on but I didn’t get enough time to cook hands-on during the lesson. The chef did too much of the cooking in the class.”

If you want to participate more hands-on in the class, get beside the chef and jump right in. If you hang back, waiting to get asked to do something, you may wait awhile and go away feeling disappointed you didn’t get a real hands-on class. Some tour guides and chefs notice who is shy and hanging back in the kitchen and encourage them to “step up to the plate,” but others don’t. You have to be assertive and volunteer.

Pace yourself at the table.

Many participants tell me, “I’ve eaten too much! There’s too much food. I’m a food lover so how can I discipline myself when everything is SO delicious.”

Find out what is on your lunch or dinner menu (a good guide should provide you with a listing of dishes before each meal) so you can pace yourself. That way you avoid eating a lot of one course only to find three more courses are coming and you don’t have room for all the wonderful food.

Most Italian meals for special occasions (all cooking school meals are special occasions) have five courses: one to five appetizers, pasta or rice plate, meat or fish plate, vegetable side dish and dessert; so pacing yourself makes a big difference in your enjoyment of your food experiences.

Sample a little bit of everything so you experience as many flavors and dishes as possible. This will also avoid offending your hospitable cooking teachers or chefs. Then you can smile and say, “It was absolutely wonderful, but I just don’t have the space.”

Stay active.

Some cooking school students wonder, “Will I gain weight during my cooking tour with the vast quantities of irresistible food?”

One woman told me she lost 10 pounds during her cooking trip in Italy. No fried chicken or hamburgers, just healthy, natural, less fatty foods. Italians eat less junk food and more fresh, local foods than many North Americans. She drank water and no soda. She did much more walking than she ever does at home.

If you can find time on your cooking school tour to go for walks or hikes, you’ll go home weighing the same or less, and feel much more energetic while on your cooking tour.

Better still, choose cooking school tours that include some good walks perhaps along paths in the Tuscan or Piedmont wine country or along coasts in Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast or Sicily.

Communicate with your guide.

Once you’re in Italy in the middle of experiencing your cooking school tour, you may want to change the tour itinerary slightly. For example, you discover many tempting leather shops in a Tuscan hill town and want to spend more time shopping and forego your spa treatments on the itinerary. Ask your tour guide how you can change activities. Most tour guides try to be as flexible as possible. If you’re enjoying an activity tremendously, ask your guide how you can do more of it.

If there’s anything you’re not enjoying on your tour or at the cooking school, take your guide or instructor aside, give constructive, friendly feedback and work together to make changes. Don’t be like some people who say nothing about their disappointments until they fill out the tour evaluation form at the end of the vacation when it’s too late to help them.

— Margaret Cowan