Italy’s best-kept food secret: the sagra festival

February 28, 2017

Italys food festivals are not just a chance to taste fantastic regional specialities, but also to delve into local culture and autumn is the time to go

Italys best-kept food secret is the sagra . A festival organised to show off a local food or beverage( or both ), a sagra is a place where youll eat well and learn. Most sagre have local producers selling the goods, but there are also tastings, competitions, demonstrations and special menu. And theyre not just about the food: many sagre have their roots in old country carnivals or pagan festivals celebrating the harvest and have been running for decades, even centuries. And while some have soared beyond local status to that of crowded international festivals, hundreds remain events where youll dine and drink elbow-to-elbow with locals. Here are seven autumn sagre that are both bustling but still true to their roots.

Sagra della Castagna, Soriano nel Cimino, Lazio

29 September-2 October and 6-9 October

A costumed medieval banquet at the Sagra della Castagna. Photo: Marcello Mascellini

Yes, youll discover chestnuts cook in every piazza in this unspoilt hilltop township an hours drive north of Rome. But this sagra is about more than that: its also when Sorianos four districts duke it out over which one best transports the town to a bygone epoch. In the Convivium Secretum, for example, costumed locals serve dishes such as capon fricassee and white-rabbit pastry in the tournament for best historic banquet. There are also jousts, archery and in a dramatic finale 700 townsfolk, each looks a lot like theyve sprung to life from a Renaissance painting or medieval tapestry, parading through the streets.
Admission for ticketed events from 2,

Where to eat, year-round
Get a taste of Soriano nel Ciminos history and in-season specialities such as tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms and chestnut-and-beef stew at Rottezzia Osteria-Birreria ( 10, Via Dello Scarico, +39 0761 7490 22 ), where the owner gives tours of the caves that make up the medieval stone quarry-turned-wine-cellar and now osteria.

Where to bide
Try the 19 th-century stone farmhouse surrounded by woodland at Podere Pontepietra ( doubleds from 55 B& B ), whose three rooms have private bathrooms, wood-beamed ceilings and views of the Tiber valley.

Mortadellab, Bologna

20 -2 3 October

Mortadella, a dish many see as the Italian precursor of bologna. Photo: Charlotte Observer/ Getty Images

The pink sausage known as mortadella bologna has been beloved for ages it was even traded like currency in the middle ages. And with its IGP protection ensuring no preservatives, artificial colouring or flavours, this version is as far from US or UK baloney as you can get. No wonder the festival in its honor now in its fourth year has become so popular: 130,000 went last year. Mortadella is sliced and served with bubbly aperitivo in the city streets, says Italy-based food writer Eleonora Baldwin, while tastings, demonstrations and competitions sprawl across Bolognas central Piazza Maggiore. As the president of the Consorzio Mortadella Bologna set it: I guarantee that it is likely to be love at first slice.

Where to eat, year round
Try mortadella at Pasquini& Brusiani , a butcher-delicatessen that has been cooking by traditional methods since 1950; its is accessible to customers from Monday to Wednesday and Friday.

Where to bide
Overlooking vineyards and the hills of the Parco dei Gessi Bolognesi at Ca del Frate ( doubleds from 95 B& B ), a pretty, peaceful B& B six miles from the centre of Bologna.

Fiera del Tartufo Bianco, SantAgata Feltria, Emilia-Romagna

Every Sunday in October

The medieval hilltop township of SantAgata Feltria. Photo: Atlantide Phototravel/ Getty Images

The most famous of Italys truffle festivals is the International White Truffle Fair in Alba. But the medieval hilltop township of SantAgata Feltria near where Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche and Umbria intersect is home to a festival as local as it is vibrant. In the main tent eateries scoop out dishes such as truffle-infused cheese fondue, truffled veal and gnocchi with truffle, while vendors proudly display their( wonky-looking) wares and no matter where you walk, the earthy odor lingers. Dont miss the race of the truffle-hunting dogs on 11 October.

Where to eat, year round
Enjoy upmarket versions of local specialities think black-pig carpaccio or ravioli with truffle, sausage and mascarpone at Il Tulipano Nero , a sleek eatery that lately opened in town.

Where to bide
In a medieval village complete with tower and a B& B restored by local artists into the enchanting Il Borgo del Sole e della Luna ( doubleds from 60 B& B ), merely three miles from town.

Bitto in Centro, Morbegno, Lombardy

15 -1 6 October

Blocks of bitto( cheese ). Photograph: Getty Images

The small town of Morbegno is near the border of Switzerland, 70 miles north-east of Milan, and few foods reflect that like its beloved cheese. Dedicated protected( DOP) status 20 years ago, bitto , which is soft and sweet when young but gets sharper as it ages, relies on cows grazing on Alpine pastures. The sagra offers tastings and bitto-centric menu( look for the most traditional dish: the cheese melted over pizzoccheri , a buckwheat pasta ), as well as vendors selling products such as Alpine-herb amaro or local honey. What I love about this sagra and many sagre on the northern bounds of Italy is how much the cheese and its preparations feel distinctly connected to the neighbouring nations, in this case Switzerland, says Katie Parla, an Italy food expert and author of the book Tasting Rome. Its a wonderful reminder of how what is perceived as authentic Italian cuisine is simply a small part of Italys gastronomic culture.

Where to eat, year round
Try bitto at the Slow Food restaurant
Osteria del Crotto , which also serves local dishes like roasted lamb and ricotta ravioli.

Where to bide
Sleep in silence and wake up to the crisp Alpine air at the homey B& B Costiera dei Cech ( doubles 58 B& B ), which exist in the mountains a six miles drive from Morbegno.

Bacco nelle Gnostre, Noci, Puglia
5-6 November

Visitors revel in the foodie streets at Bacco nelle Gnostre

Held in a pretty, whitewashed township halfway between Bari and Taranto, this festival celebrates the Pugliese spirit at its most welcoming, where locals prepare food at home and share it with passersby in the towns distinctive gnostre ( semi-private courtyards ). Grab a steaming dish of orecchiette or grilled octopus and washing it down with a glass of vino novello, primitivo or negramaro, while listening to the thrum of tarantella that threads through the street. On every alley theres something happening, says Puglia native Antonello Losito, founder of Southern Visions Travel. If someone asked me: I want a quick showcase of Puglia, as Ive never been before and I only have two hours, Id bring them here.

Where to eat, year round
Between its starring chef and lovely place in a courtyard in the heart of Noci its no wonder that LAntica Locanda is famous for its top-notch versions of traditional dishes like orecchiette with capocollo or fava beans and chicory.

Where to bide
The historic masseria( fortified farmhouse ), Abate Masseria ( doubleds from 89 B& B ), is spotted with trulli ( the cone-roofed homes unique to Puglia ), all carefully restored and complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a pony stable thats now a restaurant.

Fiera Nazionale del Marrone, Cuneo, Piedmont

14 -1 6 October

Roast with the most marrone are celebrated, and eaten in great sums, at the festival in Cuneo

Now in its 18 th year, this festival in Cuneo, 60 miles south of Turin, has become one of Italys most popular, welcoming about 300,000 visitors. And with good reason. The chestnuts more desirable, sweeter cousin( and the one used for marrons glacs ), marrone have been cultivated in the area since the middle ages. This festival in the fruits honor is Italys foremost, but its not just marrone youll discover here: 250 vendors also sell local olive oils, cheese, wine and the not-to-be-missed cuneesi al rhum , a local speciality of rum-infused dark chocolate.

Where to eat, year round
With an emphasis on Slow Food, local and organic products, Osteria Senza Fretta ( the no-rush osteria) has detected a following for dishes such as vitello tonnato ( sliced veal in a tuna-flavoured sauce) and Alpine-herb risotto.

Where to bide
Agriturismo Tetto Garro ( doubleds from 70 B& B) is a running 15 -hectare farm of walnut, chestnut and hazelnut trees, whose impeccably renovated barn offers astonishingly stylish and contemporary rooms.

La Sagra dellUva, Marino, Lazio

30 September to 3 October

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