Who has not been seduced by la dolce vita? Haven’t we all harboured a pipe dream to live in an Italian villa? Well, my fantasy has come true.
I’m at the Villa Domenico in the Veneto region, where I’ve signed up for a stint with Flavours Holidays. A driver picked me up at Venice’s Marco Polo airport and now I’m relaxing by the pool with Livia, my hostess for the week, who pours me the first of many flutes of Prosecco to come.
Each spring and fall, Flavours Holidays rents Villa Domenico for its Veneto cooking experiences. Located between Treviso and Venice, the 14th-century estate, with its pool and manicured gardens, makes a grand home base.
By early afternoon the rest of the guests arrive: David, Vanessa, and Gloria from England; Corné from South Africa; Rob and Mary, Americans who now reside in France. Livia invites us into the garden room, where we consume more bubbles and a platter of cheeses and charcuterie. Livia explains how our week will unfold and distributes recipes and aprons.
By hosting small groups in private villas, the Flavours “formula” fosters an intimate Italian house-party ambience where you’re welcome to raid the fridge for leftovers or brew a pot of tea.
“A Flavours holiday is not about teaching you knife skills,” Livia says. “We want to give you a taste of the authentic flavours of the region.” And who better to do that than our chef for the week, Gianni Minuzzo?
Gianni doesn’t speak much English. Livia, also a chef, does the translating: This afternoon we are welcome to take a stroll, go for a dip in the pool, or perhaps have a nap.
Later, the popping of corks and aromas wafting from the kitchen lure us to dinner, where Gianni has prepared some of his family favorites: potato and pea soup, roast veal, fried eggplant, and a platter of just-picked cucumbers and tomatoes. Dessert is a quince tart followed by a tad too much Grappa. If our small, convivial group has one thing in common, it’s a passion for the pleasures of the table.
Next morning, we enjoy a breakfast of homemade preserves, yogurt, fruit, and warm bread. Gianni arrives with all the ingredients for today’s cooking lesson. Time to roll up our sleeves and make pasta from scratch for the vegetable pasticcio, a sort of lasagna made with zucchini and béchamel sauce. If you have never tried to knead and roll pasta, trust me, it’s hard work. My square of dough is uneven and keeps shrinking, but Gianni’s deft rolling skills save the day.
For dessert, we soak lady finger biscuits in strong espresso for tiramisu. Gianni informs us that this classic northern Italian dessert’s name means “pick me up.” It was created by a madam in a house of Venetian prostitutes to give her girls extra energy!
Due to its proximity to both the sea and lagoons, fish is prevalent in Veneto cuisine. On the menu this week will be sardines, prawns, and anchovies. Risotto is another popular dish, one that Gianni makes with fresh sweet peas.
While there’s no lack of hands-on cooking on a Flavours holiday, there’s ample opportunity to relax and explore. On Monday, our merry group is driven to Venice, where we hop a vaporetto along the Grand Canal. After a bit of shopping, Livia introduces us to cicchetti at a typical bacaro (wine bar). These (a version of which can be found at Denver’s own Tavernetta) are basically Italian tapas on toothpicks—a cheap and cheerful way to mingle and munch with locals.
We stroll through the maze of narrow streets, up and over countless bridges, until we arrive at the grand Piazza San Marco that Napoleon described as the drawing room of Europe. Here we enjoy a quintessential Venetian spritz cocktail, made of Aperol, Prosecco, a dash of mineral water, and a slice of orange for garnish.
On Tuesday we shop at the fish market in Treviso with chef Gianni before heading to the Malibran winery for a Prosecco tasting. Another excursion takes us to Conegliano, where the remains of a 10th-century castle dominate over the pretty town where the Prosecco wine trail starts. It’s Gianni’s night off so we enjoy dinner at a local trattoria.
The week flies by. For our farewell dinner we stuff zucchini flowers with blue and Grana Padano cheese. A tangy anchovy sauce bathes thick bigoli pasta. Dessert is a crunchy almond tart. Livia produces Nocino walnut liqueur and teaches us a new Italian toast: “A tavola, non si invecchia mai… se si mangia tanto.” (At the table you never grow old…if you eat a lot.)
I swear I have not aged a day.