More than six million people have read Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's account of her year-long trip through Italy, India and Bali. But seriously, how did she ever make it past eating in Italy?
After sampling Rome's gelato, departures require serious discipline – plus maybe some non-refundable plane tickets. By the time their research of juicy, three-finger-thick steak Florentine is complete, many guidebook authors flatly refuse to leave Italy, barricading themselves inside walled Etruscan hill towns, where they attempt to install wi-fi in ancient stone houses... OK, maybe that's just me.
Still, if Gilbert's airfare rules had been a little more flexible, she might have set her entire book in Italy. Wine-tasting in Piedmont isn't a pilgrimage, exactly, but it can be a religious experience. And anyone who's ever clapped eyes on Cinque Terre knows everything there is to know about love at first sight.
To set your own foodie adventure in Italy, here's where to begin:
Eat: For pizza fit for a queen, Naples is an obligatory stop. With her Fascist leanings, Margherita of Savoy was not the most popular royal in Italian history, but the dish designed in her honour to resemble the Italian flag (green basil, red tomato and white mozzarella) remains the truest test of pizza-making prowess. Neapolitan crust is slightly puffy around the edges; its superiority is hotly refuted by Roman thin-crust loyalists. But there's no disputing Naples' local-ingredient advantages: beefy cuore di bue (ox-heart) tomatoes and buffalo-milk mozzarella.
Pray: Of all the pilgrimage sites in Italy, Vatican City is the most dramatic, with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling showing God and Man at the lightning-strike moment of creation. But the most quietly moving is Assisi, the medieval retreat of St Francis, gentle patron saint of the downtrodden. In Basilica frescoes of his life attributed to Giotto, there are no grand gestures or starring roles: the expressions of everyone around St Francis show the impact of his dedication to the poor, plague-stricken, children and animals. After a 1997 earthquake, Basilica frescoes were painstakingly reconstructed from thousands of fragments – a true act of faith.
Love: Even those devoted to Etruscan hill towns are smitten by Venice. In this fairy tale of a city, lacy pink and white marble palaces admire their own shimmering reflections in teal-blue canals - and really, who can blame them? One brief boat ride up the Grand Canal from the Venetian Gothic Ducal Palace to the Baroque Palazzo Rezzonico can permanently redefine romance. This was the base of operations for Casanova and Europe's most accomplished courtesans for a reason: sunset gondola rides and happy-hour prosecco practically do the wooing work for you.