Following a grand cycling tour as part of the press pack can be a gruelling task. You spend lots of time in cars, and most of your nights in cheap and not so cheerful hotels. But to make up for that, there’s always dinner. Lunch is usually a rushed affair, but once the action is finished and the day’s chores have been taken care of, there’s little to do other than find a restaurant and sit over a good meal and a couple of glasses of wine.
The itinerant nature of stage racing, mixed with Italy’s geographical and cultural diversity, means that the Giro d’Italia is constantly introducing you to new places and exciting flavours. The generic idea of the country’s food does its regional delicacies a disservice, and while there’s nothing wrong with a bowl of pasta al pomodoro, far more stimulating regional dishes await anyone willing to put their trust in local traditions.
Sardinia, Stages 1-3
Trattoria Maristella, Alghero
Sardinia is known for its lamb and its sheep’s cheese, but unless you’re willing to delve into the black market in search of the island’s illegal and much prized casu marzu – a putrid cheese containing cheese-fly larva – then it’s probably best to try the seafood if you’re looking for something uniquely Sardinian. Bottarga, the roe of tuna or mullet that has been sun-dried, salted, and pressed into a block before being grated, is a good place to start.
Trattoria Maristella is somewhat removed from the busiest tourist spots in Alghero, but it’s worth the short walk. It promises a menu full of simple, extremely fresh seafood and local specialities, served in an uncomplicated manner, amid plenty of friendly chatter from the natives, who cherish it as a neighbourhood staple. It was described by a Sardinian colleague as being una sicurezza. That might not sound like much when translated (“a security”), but in terms of Italian dining endorsements, it’s the gold standard.
• Mains from €10. Via Fratelli Kennedy 9, Alghero, +39 079 97 81 72, on Facebook
Where to watch With its Bronze Age roots and Catalan soul, Alghero’s historic centre is the perfect place to explore in the days before the race, and to enjoy the build up ahead of the Grande Partenza.
Sicily, Stages 4–5
Rosticceria F.lli Famulari, Messina
Arancini both unite and divide the Sicilians. Depending on where you’re from, it’s either spelled as masculine (arancino) or feminine (arancina) and can come as a large sphere or in a conical shape. Either way, they’re delicious. You’ll find plenty of varieties, from pistachio to squid ink, but the classic is a deep-fried cocoon of saffron-flavoured rice, containing a saucy core of meaty ragù. This is the quintessential Sicilian street food, and while there’s no shortage of authentic options, the Rosticceria F.lli Famulari is an institution in two-time Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali’s home town of Messina, where Stage 5 of the race will finish. Don’t let the unpretentious shopfront and fast-food approach to service fool you – this is Sicilian food at its most simple and appetising. A schiacciata messinese, a type of bread stuffed with various fillings, is also worth trying, and for dessert, pick up a balò di ricotta, a provincial speciality that’s similar to a doughnut, filled with a perfumed, sweet cheese.
• From €2. Via Cesare Battisti 143, rosticceriafamulari.it
Southern Italy, Stages 6–8
L’Aratro, Alberobello, Puglia
It’s a wonder that more tourists don’t venture this far south on the mainland, because Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia are all beautiful, with unique traditions and an embarrassment of cultural and culinary riches.
Alberobello, the arrival town for stage 7, is a Unesco world heritage site and known for its unique dwellings, known as trulli, and their dry-stone, conical roofs. In my experience, you’d be hard pressed to find a bad meal in Puglia. L’Aratro has traditional architecture and a charming garden for dining alfresco. The interior is a mixture of white-washed walls and dark, rustic furniture, and the menu reads like a greatest hits of regional fare. Try the orecchiette – the local pasta that gets its name because it looks like a little ear – but leave room for a tempting plate of grilled lamb. Proximity to the Adriatic Sea also means that fish options abound.
• Mains from €7. Via Monte San Michele 25/29, ristorantearatro.it
Where to watch The Giro doesn’t always make it to the bottom of Italy’s boot, so this year expect plenty of fans wherever you choose to watch the action. Seeing as Alberobello is hosting a finish for the first time, however, the town’s unique character and narrow streets should make for an exciting sprint finish.
Central Italy, Stages 9–10
L’alchimista, Montefalco, Umbria
Picking up where last year’s time trial in Chianti left off, Stage 10 of this year’s race is one for the oenophiles. The “wine trial” – terrible name, but it seems like it’s sticking – starts in Foligno and finishes in Montefalco, home to one of Italy’s most prized wine designations. Directly across from the 13th-century town hall, L’alchimista is part-wine bar, part-restaurant, offering plenty of Umbrian flavour, with a wide variety of cheeses and cured meats as well as fresh pastas and handmade gnocchi. Bring an appetite.
• Mains from €9. Piazza del Comune 14, ristorantealchimista.it
Where to watch The Blockhaus climb debuted in the 50th Giro, back in 1967, when a prodigious young rider named Eddy Merckx won the first of 64 grand tour stage wins. It’s a beast of a climb, a summit finish, and it’s on Stage 9 on the Sunday before a rest day – this one seems primed for fireworks.
Tuscany, Stage 11
Gelateria Ultimo Kilometro, Buggiano
Because no trip to Italy is complete without gelato… Paolo Fornaciari only won one professional race in his 15-year career, but he was a prized support rider to some of the biggest Italian stars of the 1990s and early 2000s, from Michele Bartoli to Mario Cipollini. What he missed out on while riding his bike, Fornaciari has since made up for in retirement: he became a champion ice-cream maker in 2013 with his “Macho Macho” flavour, a mixture of almonds, marmalade and dark chocolate.
• Via Pistoiese 108, gelateriaultimokilometro.it
Where to watch The Apennine mountain range might not be as tall or as famous as its northern counterparts, but the peaks here can still be vicious. Stage 11 begins in Florence, at the home of Giro legend Gino Bartali, and finishes in the picturesque spa town of Bagno di Romagna, with what looks like being an exhilarating descent to the finish-line.
Emilia-Romagna, Stages 12–13
Franceschetta 58, Modena
The bucket-list choice has got to be Modena’s chic Osteria Francescana, where Massimo Bottura is world-renowned for offering his own unique interpretations on Italian cuisine: dishes have curious names like “An eel swimming up the Po River” and diners must have very deep pockets. But superstar chefs aside, Emilia-Romagna is a foodie’s dream, the home of parmigiano, balsamic vinegar, the most prized prosciutto, mouth-watering tortellini. And you don’t need to be loaded to enjoy it: almost every street in downtown Modena seems to offer up a tempting option, and Bottura’s Franceschetta 58 offers a simplified glimpse of his culinary philosophy – at far more digestible prices.
• Mains from €12. Via Vignolese 58, franceschetta58.it
Where to watch The Po Valley offers little in the way of mountains, so set yourself up with a glass of the local sparkling red wine, Lambrusco, in a piazza in Reggio Emilia and wait for the sprint finish to Stage 12.
Piedmont, Stages 14–15
Da Cianci Piola Caffè, Turin
An unfussy clutter of tables, conversation and clinking glasses, Da Cianci Piola Caffè is typical of Turin, where portions are generous and prices modest. The pokey interior is charming in its own way if the weather has turned on you; but with plenty of tables spilling out onto the piazza, this place is probably best enjoyed on relaxed, balmy evenings. It’s not far from the city’s main square, Piazza Castello, but it always feels more local and intimate than a downtown eatery should. The menu is short and changes often, but start with some tomino – a local soft cheese – and follow it with some fresh tajarin – a pasta typical of Piedmont – and you won’t be disappointed.
• Mains from €6. Largo IV Marzo 9, no website, on Facebook
Where to watch Santuario di Oropa, an impressive basilica, nestled deep in the Alps, where Stage 14 finishes with a difficult climb that’s dedicated to the memory of the late Marco Pantani, who won here in 1999.
The Dolomites, Stages 18–19
Pitla Stua, Ortisei
The people in northern Italy’s mountains know how to enjoy themselves, and the Stage 18 finish town of Ortisei (or St Ulrich in German) has plenty planned for this year’s Giro. There are events scheduled from early in the morning, with the popular bar, Pitla Stua, ear-marked for the arrival party. It’s a lively, casual place offering everything from coffee and breakfast pastries to Tyrolean speciality foods and a good selection of wines. There’s also a “Giro di Birra” planned at the nearby Brew Pub Labetula, and for anyone still in the mood later in the evening, there’s the After Giro party at Cafè Adler, which is a short walk from Pitla Stua.
• Streda Rezia 208, pitlastua.com
Where to watch If you don’t fancy waiting at the finish, there are several tempting options, because Stage 18 has five categorised climbs, including the legendary Passo Pordoi. Conveniently, this is the first ascent of the day, so afterwards you could retreat from the cold to the comfort of a bar to watch the rest of the action.
Veneto, Stage 20
Osteria Madonnetta, Marostica
This osteria opened its doors in 1904 and has been serving the endearing town of Marostica, just outside Vicenza, ever since. Located down a narrow street, overlooked by a tower in the old city walls, this is a thoroughly local affair, both in terms of the clientele and food. The proprietors are advocates of Italy’s Slow Food movement, meaning the focus of the menu is on sustainability and local produce. Highlights include the baccalà alla vicentina, stockfish cooked in milk and served with polenta; and maccafame, a cake made with dried fruits and nuts, and flavoured with grappa.
• Mains from €7. Via Vajenti 21, osteriamadonnetta.it
Where to watch It has to be Monte Grappa, one of Italian cycling’s iconic mountains. It’s midway through the stage, followed by a long descent before the final climb, so if the general classification is tight, there will definitely be some desperate attacks.
Lombardy, Stages 15-17 & 21
Bar Luce – Fondazione Prada, Milan
Milan is a stylish city, and what could be more stylish than grabbing a coffee or enjoying an aperitivo at a bar designed by one of Hollywood’s great aesthetes, Wes Anderson, in a gallery founded by the Prada fashion house? Bar Luce is a typical Milanese cafe and Anderson has created a peculiar, pastel-toned tribute to Italian cafe culture.
• Pastries from €1.50. Largo Isarco 2, fondazioneprada.org
Where to watch The final stage will be an individual time trial, finishing in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo. There will be big screens, crowds of confused tourists wondering what’s going on, reams of pink decor and a stage full of loud race announcers, so pick a spot in front of the cathedral and enjoy the Giro show in all its hectic glory.
Colin O’Brien is the author of Giro d’Italia: the Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race (Pursuit Books, £16.99)