Sagra della Castagna, Soriano nel Cimino, Lazio
29 September-2 October and 6-9 October
Yes, you’ll find chestnuts roasting in every piazza in this unspoilt hilltop town an hour’s drive north of Rome. But this sagra is about more than that: it’s also when Soriano’s four districts duke it out over which one best transports the town to a bygone era. In the Convivium Secretum, for example, costumed locals serve dishes such as capon fricassee and white-rabbit pastry in the contest for best historic banquet. There are also jousts, archery and – in a dramatic finale – 700 townsfolk, each looking like they’ve sprung to life from a Renaissance painting or medieval tapestry, parading through the streets.
Where to eat, year-round
Get a taste of Soriano nel Cimino’s 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 749022), where the owner gives tours of the caves that make up the medieval stone quarry-turned-wine-cellar – and now osteria.
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 colours or flavours, this version is as far from US or UK “baloney” as you can get. No wonder the festival in its honour – now in its fourth year – has become so popular: 130,000 came 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 Bologna’s central Piazza Maggiore. As the president of the Consorzio Mortadella Bologna put it: “I guarantee that it will be ‘love at first slice’.”
Fiera del Tartufo Bianco, Sant’Agata Feltria, Emilia-Romagna
Every Sunday in October
The most famous of Italy’s truffle festivals is the International White Truffle Fair in Alba. But the medieval hilltop town of Sant’Agata 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 restaurants 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 scent lingers. Don’t miss the race of the truffle-hunting dogs on 11 October.
Bitto in Centro, Morbegno, Lombardy
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. Given 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 menus (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 boundaries 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. “It’s a wonderful reminder of how what is perceived as authentic Italian cuisine is just a small part of Italy’s gastronomic culture.”
Bacco nelle Gnostre, Noci, Puglia
Held in a pretty, whitewashed town 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 town’s distinctive gnostre (semi-private courtyards). Grab a steaming dish of orecchiette or grilled octopus and wash it down with a glass of vino novello, primitivo or negramaro, while listening to the thrum of tarantella that threads through the streets. “On every alley there’s something happening,” says Puglia native Antonello Losito, founder of Southern Visions Travel. “If someone asked me: ‘I want a quick showcase of Puglia, as I’ve never been before and I only have two hours’, I’d bring them here.”
Fiera Nazionale del Marrone, Cuneo, Piedmont
Now in its 18th year, this festival in Cuneo, 60 miles south of Turin, has become one of Italy’s most popular, welcoming about 300,000 visitors. And with good reason. The chestnut’s more desirable, sweeter cousin (and the one used for marrons glacés), marrone have been cultivated in the area since the middle ages. This festival in the fruit’s honour is Italy’s foremost, but it’s not just marrone you’ll find here: 250 vendors also sell local olive oils, cheeses, wine and the not-to-be-missed cuneesi al rhum, a local speciality of rum-infused dark chocolate.
La Sagra dell’Uva, Marino, Lazio
30 September to 3 October
“The sagra in Marino is, as far as I know, the only one in Italy where wine (not water) runs through the town’s central fountain,” says Italy-based food writer Elizabeth Minchilli. “It’s literally a bacchanalian adventure.” Launched in 1924, today the sagra – held every year in a town overlooking Lago Albano, 15 miles south of Rome – is one of Italy’s liveliest. Stalls sell specialities such as porchetta and ciambelle al mosto (a ring-shaped cake with raisins that gets its own sagra the following weekend), grapevines are strung across streets and statues are piled with bunches of grapes. The real draw, however, is on Sunday, when a costumed procession re-enacts the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – and when the fountains flow with wine. Bring an empty water bottle and fill up. Just keep in mind that everyone else is doing the same … meaning this festival sometimes gets a little too bacchanalian for everyone’s liking.