Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
A very interesting agency, Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures, that will probably interest most of our readers has appeared recently and we felt that it would be opportune to discover more by interviewing the owner and founder Francesca Montillo, who is also a successful author.
L’Idea: Your Web site (www.thelazyitalian.com) is quite informative and pretty clear on the goals of your agency, but could you elaborate anyway on the concept of your culinary-themed food & wine adventures to the various regions of Italy?
Francesca Montillo: The art and history are certainly reasons why many travelers flock to Italy, but let’s be honest, food is what we can all relate too. I wanted to start a business that would appeal to everyone, that offered something to all, and food is the one common denominator. I have always enjoyed traveling back to Italy and if I am being honest, food is one of the main reasons. Everything is tastier in Italy, more genuine. I wanted others to experience that as well. I wanted everyone to know what a fresh summer tomato tastes like in Sicily, what freshly pressed oil is like in Tuscany and the flavor of freshly discovered truffles. I wanted others to be brought to the source of their favorite imported products, such a Parma Prosciutto or Parmigiano cheese, or extra virgin olive oil, and so, via my business, I am able to do just that. It’s extremely rewarding.
L’Idea: Why did you choose the name “Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures?”
Francesca Montillo: I receive this question a lot; I think many people wonder about the name! My goal with business has always been to get people to cook more, to spend more time in the kitchen, to sit down at home as opposed to a restaurant, so my recipes, as well as my business philosophy, has always been simple, straight to the point and unpretentious. Some may even say it’s “lazy” cooking. It’s really not about being lazy, but being efficient in the kitchen; then again “Efficient Italian Culinary Adventures” just doesn’t have the same ring to it! I have been concerned that folks and clients don’t want to be associated with a business with the name “lazy” in it, and a few business advisors have suggested I change the name, but it hasn’t negatively impacted my business, as far as I can tell, so I think I’m sticking with it, as many are intrigued by it!
L’Idea: You also have an option called “Italy by Design.” What is that about?
Francesca Montillo: As much as I love leading and running my tours, I fully understand that touring, even with a small intimate group, is not for everyone. As such, I design private and custom itineraries for clients who want the native expertise I offer, without the group component. People essentially hire me to design their trip to Italy; then they set off on their own, with everything from A-Z planned and scheduled for them according to their preferences. They have neither the time nor the inclination, nor frankly, the experience, that creating a memorable week in Italy requires and they prefer to outsource the planning and designing of their trip to me.
I also offer private custom tours for pre-formed groups. Many friends, especially retirees and baby boomers, enjoy traveling together and want to form their own exclusive group tour, so for a minimum of 6 travelers, we’re able to design a spectacular week in which I expertly lead and guide them in Italy. This is a wonderful version of touring, without doing so with strangers.
L’Idea: How did you come up with the idea of these intimate culinary-experience travels?
Francesca Montillo: I fully believe that the best way to get to know any culture is through its cuisine, so while everyone was always asking me about my upbringing in Italy and what foods we ate, I figured the best way to tell them about it, was to bring them to the source, Italy, and actually show them. I have been traveling back to Italy for 30 years and with every trip, I was changed. I wanted others to experience this type of experiential travel as well.
Despite my business name, these are active weeks that are educational, fun, intimate and enlightening. Because I limit them to 12 participants, wonderful friendships are formed during the week and we travel like a family and not a large touring company.
L’Idea: Which ones are the most common geographical areas that you visit in Italy for these tours?
Francesca Montillo: Last year, I was in Tuscany, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. This year, I have several tours in Southern Italy, namely Sicily and Puglia. I think people are attracted to these regions as they are very authentic, not as traveled and recognize that the cuisine is very distinctive. I have traveled all over Italy, but as a Southerner myself, I recognize that the cuisine there is so very different and I’m looking forward to exposing my clients to it. Italian cuisine is so varied from region to region, from town to town, really, that we could explore every inch of the land and not find a dish that is made the same way. It’s incredible, really. I have my work cut out ahead of me in exposing folks to all the various types of foods!
L’Idea: What can a participant expect from this experience? Are the participants also introduced to the different kind of wines?
Francesca Montillo: Being a food & wine adventure, participants can anticipate lots of both. We take cooking classes with the locals, visit lots of wineries and see the wine production process, visit olive oil mills, honey farms and many cheese producers. We visit historical restaurants, participate in local foodie tours and sample the specialty local products and of course, do our fair share of eating gelato! To round it off, we often participate in a cultural tour of the main city in which we’re focusing on so that we can get to know it better. My trips are definitely not about art or history; while having a sample of that, I make it clear that if those are your main interested, you might be better served choosing a different agency, but if food and wine are the main reason for your trip to Italy, then join us!
I think what makes my tours unique is that we frequently stay in one location with day trips throughout the week. I don’t like the idea of bussing my clients from city to city, wasting precious vacation time in transit, changing hotels every few days, crossing cities off of a travel list, never getting to know one location well enough. Perhaps that makes us lazy after all, but I believe in full immersion travel, getting to know one area well, visiting the nearby towns and getting to know the locals as much as possible.
I am finding that travelers are also very savvy these days, they don’t want the “been there, done that” experiences but want more authenticity, less tourist and more local life, less “mass produced travel” and more unique experiences with the natives, so it’s an exciting time to be in my position. I’m finding that being a native is also something my clients appreciate as if offers that extra level of validity that many other US companies can’t provide.
L’Idea: Are you planning some other special tours for the future?
Francesca Montillo: I am now planning my 2020 schedule and it’s a bit all over the place! I will soon be in Umbria and will be researching the landscape there for a possible trip. I think Umbria is one of the most underappreciated regions that deserve more attention and certainly more visitors. I’ll be leading a private week in Chianti, and hope to organize a week in my native region of Calabria in 2020. I have been getting inquiries about the Amalfi Coast, so that’s also under consideration. My concern with Amalfi is that folks may be too overwhelmed by the beauty, beaches, and scenery that they will be distracted. I still want food & wine to be the main focus of my tours! I will have to plan that one carefully! Both Emilia Romagna and Veneto were well received so I may return there in 2020.
L’Idea: You also offer cooking classes in the area of Boston. Could you tell me more about that?
Francesca Montillo: I started my cooking classes a number of years ago as a way to show hesitant or new cooks how easy Italian cooking can be. Some feedback I always receive from students is that they had not realized how easy many dishes are to prepare. They anticipated sauces lingering on the stove for hours, lengthy recipes taking hours and strict food rules that they had to follow. And while yes, there are Italian dishes that call for just that, we instead prepare dishes that are simple, take 30 – 40 minutes to prepare and don’t have a lengthy laundry list of ingredients. Again, sticking with my theme of being efficient in the kitchen. It could teach more elaborate dishes, but if the students aren’t going to prepare them at home because they are intimidated or simply don’t have the time, than what is the point of the class? Sure, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours, but I want people to leave my kitchen feeling confident that they can replicate the meals at home. Many of my students are busy executives, new moms, busy dads and even college students who simply don’t have the time to cook, so I show them that it’s completely doable to create a multi-course, guest-worthy dinner in a short amount of time.
L’Idea: Your book “The 5-ingredient Italian Cookbook” has received many accolades. What is the book about?
Francesca Montillo: Thank you for the kind compliment! The cookbook really captures the spirit of my business and my cooking philosophy; that being that cooking doesn’t need to take hours, nor lengthy recipes to be delicious. Even in Italy, as you know, home cooks value quality over quantity, freshness, and seasonality above all else. Many dishes naturally require just a handful of ingredients, but it’s not presented as such in many cookbooks, so home cooks get anxious and don’t even try. The book contains 101 regional recipes, each with a short intro to the dish or the region it comes. It’s a great introductory book for new cooks or cooks that just need a few new ideas. At the beginning of the book, we list a short, handful of ingredients that don’t count towards the 5 main ingredients, items that all home cooks should have at home, such as oils, salt, butter and such. Once a home cook arms her/himself with these staples, they will need little else to prepare delicious meals at home for themselves and their families.
L’Idea: Could you offer our readers a recipe from your book?
Francesca Montillo: I’m a huge believer in sharing recipes. Some people have the mentality that recipes should never be shared; clearly, that was never me! I would love to share a few recipes from the book, as well as invite readers to my blog (https://www.thelazyitalian.com/food–travel-blog) where I post free recipes regularly.
L’Idea: In your book, you refer to a taste tour. What is that?
Francesca Montillo: In the book, 101 regional recipes were captured, giving the readers and home cooks a taste of every region. The region of each recipe is identified, so a reader carefully following the book would be able to see a theme in regional cooking. For example, how Sicilian cooking is spicier than northern cooking. The recipes are a great window into the soul of regional Italian cooking that can be transported back to the States. If one wants to truly experience authentic Italian cuisine, then I think they would be very well served to join me on a culinary adventure to Italy; since that’s not an option for many, I think the book is a great alternative for a virtual taste tour of Italy.
L’Idea: It is obvious that you enjoy cooking, but do you also cook all different regional cuisine for your own dinners? Which one is your preferred dish?
Francesca Montillo: I grew up on Calabrian cuisine, inspired by neighboring regions of Puglia and Sicily, so I certainly gravitate towards that kind of cooking at home. I am also the daughter of a greengrocer, so I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I really love eating fresh produce, especially in the summer months. It’s strange to me how young children in the States aren’t introduced to produce at a young age. I think part of that is that vegetables here are often cooked plainly, making it very unappealing to kids. I grew up eating zucchini, green beans, eggplants, and broccoli and thought nothing of it because it was cooked deliciously and dressed with local extra virgin olive oil. I’m happy to offer many recipes in the book that I think would appeal to young eaters. It’s so important to introduce young eaters to fresh produce early on.
L’Idea: On my part, I will stop by one of your classes when I’ll be around Boston, but do you expect to ever present your book in New York? Maybe also offer some classes in this area too?
Francesca Montillo: I would certainly love to, if the opportunity presented itself, I am very open to it. I do receive frequent emails asking if I take my classes on the road, so one never knows. It’s certainly something I would consider. I am also contemplating starting a YouTube channel, so that would be a great way to showcase my recipes to a greater audience. Until that time, I look forward to hosting you in Boston!
L’Idea: Any special message for our readers?
Francesca Montillo: I urge all readers to give themselves a chance in the kitchen. Even novice cooks can prepare delicious recipes provided they use high-quality ingredients and are strategic about their recipes. Home cooking is not only healthier and more economical but also far more rewarding. I also invite all readers to check out my website and consider joining us for a tour in the future! Past travelers have commented that they forget that they are on a tour, as they feel like they are traveling with friends, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.
Thank you L’Idea Magazine for the opportunity to share what I do, and my love for Italy, with your readers!