U.S.-Siena Venture Touts Tuscan Countryside By Dinah Spritzer / March 13, 1997 Share 1 -- Reed Travel Features NEW YORK -- The newly formed operator Italian Country Living takes small groups to wander in the countryside, where tourists can see the "real" Italy, the company's principals said.Italian Country Living's Linda Rivero has taken small groups to Italy for seven years as the owner of La Pergola Tours.She decided it would benefit her business to have a partnership with a local outfit, and Italian Country Living was born when she joined forces with one of Siena's oldest ground operators, Balzana Viaggi.Italian Country Living was launched this year with three small group itineraries:* La Dolce Vita is a seven-night food and wine tour of Tuscany priced at $3,650, double, including air from New York and three- and four-star superior accommodations. The tour departs April 6 and June 1.The maximum group sizeis 20.* The nine-night Jewish Heritage Tour of Tuscany is a deluxe program that features Relais & Chateaux accommodations, with departures sched-uled for July, August, November and February.A highlight is a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Jewish family.The tour is priced from $3,600, double, with air.The maximum group sizeis 20.* Women's Wellness Week in Italy, with departures on March 21 and June 27, is a program designed to lift the spirits of participants through fine food, intellectual stimulation and relaxation in the Siena region.The tour, including air and three-star hotels with local flavor, is priced at $2,150, double, with a maximum of 15 participants.On the women's program in particular, Rivero said, she picks colorful restaurants and hotels "that most agents and operators have never heard of.""These establishments provide a personal touch, with Mama in the kitchen ready to talk to her guests after the meal is served."Accommodations for the wellness program overlook enticing scenery and are authentic, Rivero said.Some are residenze, apartmentlike hotels with kitchenettes and pools.The women have the chance to dine in a variety of restaurants, from family-style country kitchens, where there are a few long tables and benches, to more elegant eateries with linen tablecloths.Rivero had been going on "wellness weekends" with a YMCA group in New York, which gave her the idea for her own program."Woman really enjoy the company of other women, especially when men aren't around."I thought about the things my friends like to do, like shop, relax at a spa, take a cooking class and learn something new. I incorporated these things in the tour," she said.Women's Wellness Week includes spa baths in thermal pools overlooking the Tuscan hills and in San Gimignano, seats at the famed Palio horse race in Siena , a cooking lesson and a wine-tasting tour in Chianti, and a hike on Monte Amiata volcano."In America, we think of wellness as heavy-duty exercise and aerobics."But in Italy, people get their exercise from their daily lives, like walking and bicycling. To them, wellness is a mud bath or eating fresh vegetables," she said.Rivero said many Americans have misconceptions about Italian food."In Tuscany, they use fresh ingredients, plenty of vegetables, salads, fish and home-made olive oil. We're not talking lasagna in cream sauce," she said.One special tour feature is an evening with some Italian women, who share their lives with their American counterparts."Italian women are fascinated by the lifestyle of American women because Italy is still much more traditional," she said."Women's roles there are changing, and they're working outside the home more and more, but in the countryside, it's like America 20 years ago. Men are washing the dishes and helping with the children for the first time, and some are not very happy about it."For information, call Italian Country Living's office in Nanuet, N.Y., at (914) 358-6035; fax (914) 358-7184.