Just because you don't have an Italian uncle to take you around doesn't mean you can't roll stringozzi in an Umbrian farmhouse or sample salami with the chatty proprietor of the best little butcher shop in Chianti. A number of tour operators and travel experts focus on cooking in Italy, letting you take your passions and run with them. They are often able to show you a side of local life that you didn't know you craved. Some, like L'Arte di Cucinare, operate essentially as conventional group tours but with an unconventional emphasis on food and wine. Others, like Via Travel Design, assess your interests with an almost psychoanalytic rigor; they then craft personalized itineraries to your taste. None of these travel experiences will evoke thoughts of "If it's Tuesday, this must be Venice."
Master planner: Catherine Merrill, a former TV producer and writer, decided eight years ago to pursue her passion for food, wine and travel by leading culinary tours.
Services: Merrill creates personalized packages for two or more travelers and also runs traditional culinary tours. Cooking classes are always included. Itineraries include visits to winemakers as well as to markets, olive-oil producers and vinegar makers.
Highlights: Antica Macelleria Cecchini, a tiny, deliriously good butcher shop in Panzano, Chianti, where Dario Cecchini works behind the counter dishing out meat and stories. There's also a tasting room with Tuscan cold cuts and local wines (011-39-055-852020). Ceramiche Rampini, in Radda, where travelers can watch platters, bowls and pitchers being made and buy seconds at a discount (011-39-057-7738043). The fish market in Chioggia, an old Venetian outpost on the far fringe of the lagoon, which looks like a smaller, much less crowded version of Venice. A fleet of fishing boats sell their catch at the market Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Privileged access: Travelers to the Amalfi Coast learn the cuisine of Campania at a home in Positano, while those touring Venice cook aboard a bragosso (fishing vessel) as they sail the lagoon. (The legendary cooking teacher Fulvia Sesani also teaches one class in Venice.) In a farmhouse in Spoleto, clients prepare Umbrian specialties such as stringozzi, a hand-cut pasta.
Toughest assignment: Merrill created a culinary tour for a group allergic to gluten.
Details: $1,800 to $3,000 for a standard weeklong tour; 888-380-9010; www.epiculinary.com.
CULTURE & CUISINE TOURS
Master planner: The creator and director of Boston University's Master's in Gastronomy program, Rebecca Alssid took her show on the road more than 10 years ago, running tours to Italy first through B.U. and now privately.
Services: Alssid enlists high-profile food writers and chefs--including Jacques Pépin, Mary Ann Esposito, Franco Romagnoli and Ed Giobbi--to lead tours two to three times a year for groups of 8 to 30. Itineraries include dinners in private homes and visits to farms, wineries and markets.
Highlights: In Emilia-Romagna, the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, a vinegar producer in Modena (011-39-059-236981). The nearby Due Madonne, a Parmesan producer in Reggio nell'Emila (011-39-052-2512151). Gastronomia Garibaldi, a delicatessen in Parma (011-39-052-1235606).
Privileged access: On a Corsica-Sardinia trip, Pépin supervised shopping at a local market and demonstrated how to turn the purchases into lunch. In Venice, Alssid surprised her clients with a Prosecco reception at the Hotel Cipriani for Julia Child, who happened to be teaching there. On a Sicily trip, Anna Tasca Lanza, owner of the renowned cooking school World of Regaleali in Vallelunga, held three days of hands-on classes with Esposito. A wedding feast for two tour members at a private home in Cortona featured regional wines and food prepared by local farm wives, an olive-oil tasting and a mock wedding ceremony presided over by Pépin and Giobbi.
Details: About $2,900 for a week; 617-277-2705; ralssid@culture&cuisinetours.
L'ARTE DI CJUCINARE
Master planner: Chef Michele Topor, who has long given tours of Boston's Italian North End, expanded her territory to Sicily a dozen years ago.
Services: Topor's twice-a-year week long tour "A Taste of Sicily" explores the simple yet innovative cucina povera of ordinary Sicilians as well as the baroque cuisine of the aristocracy.
Highlights: Il Ristorantino, a Palermo restaurant in the "new Sicilian" cooking style. The animated owner, Pippo Anastasio, is a well-known cooking lecturer (011-39-091-512861). La Pasticceria Grammatico Maria in Erice. Maria Grammatico, whose life story is told in the fascinating book Bitter Almonds (cowritten with Mary Taylor Simeti), sometimes gives marzipan-making demonstrations (011-39-092-3869390). Donna Fugata Aziende Vinicole, a superb winery in Marsala (011-39-092-3999555).
Privileged access: Groups watch a shepherd make sheep's milk ricotta cheese, breakfast on a bowl of it (sprinkled with olives), then taste other cheeses in various stages of aging. A long lunch is shared with the extended family that owns the estate. A similar up-close experience is offered at a frantoio (olive-oil producer), culminating in lunch with the owner and his family and the pressing of just-picked olives and the bottling of the oil. At another stop, AnnaMaria Domenici, a caterer and teacher, explains the Palermitana methods of cooking fish and making cassata, the renowned Sicilian sponge cake filled with ricotta and chocolate.
Details: $2,749 for one week; 617-523-6032; www.cucinare.com.
ARTHUR SCHWARTZ TRAVEL
Master planner: Arthur Schwartz, host of the radio show Food Talk and author of Naples at Table and other cookbooks, says, "Naples is my favorite place outside Brooklyn."
Services: A self-described "pedantic soul," he recently led a large group tour of Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Campania and other culinary capitals. He's planning smaller tours (groups of 14 or fewer) for next year. There will be cooking demonstrations and meals at private homes throughout the trips, all of which include a cruise.
Highlights: Cecilia Bellelli Barattas's water-buffalo farm in Paestum (011-39-082-8723634), and a stop nearby at the only place in the world that still makes raw-milk mozzarella. Francesca Pasca di Magliano's magnificent orchard farm in Capua, where citrus fruits and peaches are grown and preserved (011-39-082-3961108). Le Sirenuse in Positano, an extraordinary hotel with great food and cooking demonstrations (011-39-089-875066).
Details: About $7,000 for 10 days; 718-783-2626; email@example.com.
VIA TRAVEL DESIGN
Master planners: James Dominic got hooked on Italy as an American student in Bergamo in 1976. A former teacher who also worked in restaurants, he took repeated trips abroad, creating a database of more than 4,000 entries, including farmers, food artisans and wineries.
Services: Dominic and his partner, Lori Redmond, plan detailed, personalized itineraries for individuals and small groups and arrange for property rentals. Through extensive interviewing (are you an early bird or a night owl? How many times a day do you eat?), they create a meticulous, indexed personal guidebook, in print and on disk. They can hire a car and a bilingual driver and book you at villas, cottages, apartments, hotels, pensioni and agriturismo farms (working farms that get government money for restoration if they take in guests). Via also arranges private cooking classes and tours of food producers and boutique wineries.
Highlights: Fattoria Corzano & Paterno in San Pancrazio, Chianti, where Aljoscha and Toni Goldschmidt make wine and cheese (011-39-055-8249114).
La Baracchetta di Biagio, a wonderfully simple seaside restaurant in Recco, Liguria, that serves traditional, heavenly focaccia col formaggio--two flattened layers of bread with a mild Stracchino-cheese filling, drizzled with olive oil and baked in a wood-burning oven (011-39-018-5720658). The Enoteca Regionale del Barolo in La Morra, Piedmont; you can get a map there to the Barolo Pathways (Sentiero del Barolo) and take an eight-mile walk or mountain-bike ride through the vineyards.
Details: $500 a week and up; 215-248-2570; www.viatraveldesign.com.
Marialisa Calta is a freelance writer and a food columnist.