Italy tours let clients choose culinary options

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BOSTON--Whether it is a weeklong stay at a prestigious cooking school or simply a heaping plate of fresh pasta at a local trattoria, gastronomy is a large part of what travel to Italy is all about.

But although interest in upscale culinary tours is on the rise, tour operators agree that, for the most part, you get what you pay for.

 al fresco diners "Our focus is sightseeing tours," said Steve Perillo, president of Perillo Tours in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. "Food is as important as we can make it within the budget." Gourmet tours are a higher category of product than what the firm typically offers, for which he would have to add about $1,000 per package, he said. On the other hand, Perillo incorporates "plentiful and good" meals at local trattorias 75% of the time on a tour so that clients can enjoy the regional cuisine as part of the overall experience.

Even operators committed to offering culinary tours admit that finding the right supplier is not always easy. "I am researching different properties that offer cooking schools, because I refuse to put anything in our brochures that won't sell," said An Phan, reservations operations manager for New York-based CIT Tours. "We do not have enough requests to make this market a priority," she said. As to recommending restaurants, Phan said that CIT staff can do so based on their personal experience. "We don't do research on this as yet, since it is a very specialized market and it takes a lot of work to put together, but our res agents know Italy well enough to offer this type of information."

At Touritalia in Chicago, president Gino Di Nallo sorts out the problem of financing gourmet travel by having clients pay for their own meals in customized itineraries. "The importance we place on cuisine when designing a package depends on the client and how important it is for him or her," Di Nallo said. "What we can do is suggest which restaurants we think they ought to try, make the reservations for them and even show them the menu." Unlike Phan, Di Nallo said he makes it a priority to research the best restaurants for discriminating clients "because I have noticed that when I bring in the gastronomy angle, the package becomes more sellable." Since arranging culinary treats for small, customized groups is easier than for prepackaged tours, Di Nallo said he works to sell the idea of FIT travel to agents. "Whenever I have four or more people who want to go on an escorted tour, I usually can change their minds by telling them that they can have the freedom and convenience of doing whatever they want for only 10% to 15% more."

At Italiatour, programs are arranged to allow clients to discover their own eateries, which, according to vice president of product development Robert Saccone, is half the fun. "Our goal with our independent packages is to get people to Italy, offer them hotels and transportation and leave them to discover restaurants on their own. There are so many good restaurants in Italy that it is easy to find one," he said, adding that even eating pizza can be an event in Rome. On the escorted packages, Saccone said the company adopts a half-board structure designed to offer nearly the same freedom.

Chicago-based TourCrafters designs specialized tours through its Mysterious Italy product line that can include cooking classes, wine tours, and even vegetarian gourmet tours. Itineraries are customized for each group and can include travel by minivan and accommodations in castles, small hotels and villas.

Central Holidays approaches the challenge of organizing group restaurant meals by focusing on good quality local restaurants. "In an Italian meal, there is a certain sense of ritual," said company vice president Vinicio Cantatore. A typical meal includes an antipasto, soup or pasta, a main dish of meat or fish, a side dish of salad or vegetables, fruit, dessert and coffee, he said. The company has a conventions, incentives and groups department that can design more specialized itineraries focusing on gastronomy and wine, Cantatore said. "People are becoming much more cosmopolitan and adventurous about food, and we are incorporating changes, such as wine with meals in our packages," he said.

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