The best way to discover the secrets of regional cuisine is in a local’s home, where it’s not always accessible to the average traveler. In Italy, however, there’s a shortcut to the dinner table, as freelance writer Jessica Spiegel explains in this guest post.
Back-tracking yet again through the narrow, dark streets behind one of central Milan’s many churches, scanning names on doorbells, we were glad we had arrived with time to spare before our appointment. We were both a bit nervous, not knowing what to expect or who else would be there when we finally found the right building, but no matter what else happened we were about to ring a stranger’s doorbell and expect to be served dinner.
In fact, we had paid for the privilege, and—as it turned out—we had nothing to be worried about.
Food-loving travelers know that in most places, while you can get great meals in restaurants, the best food is often the stuff prepared by home cooks—behind closed doors. Those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have a friend in every port can only imagine those home-cooked meals (or stay long enough to make friends who will invite us in), but in Italy there’s an organization that connects welcoming Italian cooks with curious diners. Frankly, it’s such a clever idea, I wonder why it isn’t more common.
Home Food, started in Bologna in 2004, is an organization dedicated to preserving traditional Italian dishes. They do this by encouraging home cooks in Italy to make the local and seasonal dishes that are specific to the areas in which they live, and by then inviting other people to experience these meals in the intimate setting of a real Italian home, rather than a restaurant. The cooks who are part of Home Food (they’re called Cesarine) go through a rigorous application and testing process to ensure the dishes they’re preparing are up to Home Food’s standards, and they then submit dates each month when they’re available to host a dinner. Home Food diners can consult the organization’s calendar and register for whatever dinners sound appealing.
Of course, travelers have less flexibility than Italian residents when it comes to signing up for Home Food dinners, in that the calendar of events must also coincide with where they’ll be in Italy at the time. After a few trips when my itinerary and the Home Food calender were at odds, then, I was giddy when a dinner in Milan appeared during a week I planned to be in the city. My husband and I might have been more nervous about the evening had we known we were the only people who had registered for the dinner—it was November in Milan, a low-tourist month in a city not as popular with visitors as some others—but our hosts turned out to be so delightful we stayed for hours after the meal had ended.
Cesarine menu. Photo by Madeline Jhawar
Nicoletta, our Cesarina, served us a traditional Milanese dish of oss buss (Milanese dialect for osso buco) with gremolada and risotto, a vegetable and egg terrine, and a dessert incorporating Milan’s famous Christmas bread, panettone. A different bottle of regional wine came out with every course, and we finished the meal with a barbajada, an espresso-cocoa drink that dates from 14th-century Milan. Conversation during the evening ranged from Milanese cuisine to traveling in Hawaii to Italian politics—and since we were trying to improve our language skills, we spoke mostly in Italian throughout.
I remember the food and wine to be fantastic, and yet the meal is secondary to my most vivid memories of the experience. Standing in Nicoletta’s kitchen as she stirred the contents of a pot and checked on something in the oven, I couldn’t help but feel I was hovering in a friend’s kitchen, as we all do at dinner parties. We had arrived at the apartment knowing our host’s name and what was on the menu, but within seconds we were handed glasses of wine and made to feel like welcomed friends.
It’s the sort of travel experience you think you can’t buy—except you can. Registering with Home Food is only €3.50 for one month (for non-residents), and then you pay for each dinner, which generally ranges about €30 to €50 per person. My Home Food meal cost less than €40 per person, including wine, a price you can expect to pay in many restaurants for a far less memorable experience.
You may not yet have a friend in Italy who’ll invite you home for dinner, but after attending a Home Food meal you just might.
Here’s how to sign up for a Home Food dinner in Italy:
- Go to the Home Food website and click on “To become User Partner” in the upper right-hand corner.
- Fill out the form, making sure the box for “I would like to become a member to attend events” is checked. Note that every member of your group needs to register separately.
- You’ll receive a second form to complete via email, with instructions on how to pay the monthly registration fee (via PayPal). If you’re planning your trip well in advance, you can tell them you’re registering for a month in the future—but keep in mind that the calendar of events doesn’t come out that far in advance, so you may want to wait to register until you know there’s an event that will work with your schedule.
- Consult the Home Food calendar to see what events are happening when and where in the country. There are Cesarine throughout Italy.
- When you click on an event on the calendar, you’ll see the menu for the meal, the per-person cost, and a tab for “Booking.” Click on the link that says “To participate in the event,” and you’ll be taken to a form to fill out for that particular dinner. (You can get to this form without going through the calendar, but this way it fills out the event information for you.)
- Remember that these are real homes, so they’re not always accessible via a main public-transport line. Be prepared to rent a car to reach some of the locations (or look for events that are specifically listed as being in a city center).
For further inspiration, check out this video on Home Food Italy:
About the author: Jessica Spiegel is a Portland-based writer (formerly with BootsnAll, the round-the-world travel experts). She’s a devoted Italophile, is fairly convinced she could survive on pizza and gelato alone, and still thinks going to a stranger’s house for dinner constitutes a travel adventure (even if it turns out brilliantly).
Go here for more regional food in Italy.