If you’re dreaming of the Italian lifestyle, food expert and author Elizabeth Minchilli is a must-follow on Instagram. From her apartment in Rome and farmhouse in Umbria, she shares recipe videos for things like zucchini ricotta pasta, chickpea soup, and iced almond coffee, plus local farmers’ market trips, ceramics and clothes shopping, and travel tips. This summer, her strawberry ricotta cake recipe has been posted hundreds of times by followers.
Minchilli, who started out as a food and culture writer, has built a successful business centered around tours and a popular Substack newsletter, using social media to help promote her insider knowledge.
Now that Americans can travel to Italy again, Minchilli has turned her focus on something new: launching three new tours in Sicily, Abruzzo, and Parma with her business partner, daughter Sophie Minchilli, whose new book, The Sweetness of Doing Nothing, explores how to bring more of that Italian lifestyle into your own daily life.
Minchilli is originally from St. Louis, but moved to Rome for two years with her family when she was 12. They moved back to the United States but still spent summers in Italy. After studying art history in graduate school, she made her way back permanently: She studied Renaissance garden architecture in Florence, met an Italian man who would become her husband, moved to Rome, and had two daughters.
Minchilli sat down with AFAR to talk about how she built her business, the future of travel, and a few favorite places in Rome.
How did you end up leading tours in Italy?
I originally was a writer for art and design magazines, and soon branched out into food writing, always from a cultural point of view. I was doing four features a month, getting paid five dollars a word, and writing books. But when publishing changed, it all fell apart. I was soon doing two features a year.
I found I was very comfortable and good at social media, and I started a blog and put my energy into that, posting three or four times a week. Eventually, I created an app called Eat Italy, the first guide app in English to eating in Italy. I’ve only just retired it this year because the landscape is so different, but it went for 10 years and was a bestseller.
Around then, someone approached me about doing tours. I thought, ugh, no, I don’t want to do that. I thought it was taking people around the Colosseum at noon. But they said, no, no, we just want to walk around markets with you. So I started doing that 10 or 12 years ago. From day one, I was booked solid. I decided to keep it high-end and private, as it seemed like a better business model. Through it all, I continued writing books. My last three were about food: Eating Rome, Eating My Way Through Italy, and The Italian Table.
Now, my daughter Sophie Minchilli is my business partner. We started doing week-long tours in Rome—at the time no one was doing it how we were. Our guests started asking us to organize trips in other places. We have a farmhouse in Umbria and my husband is from Puglia, so we know both regions well. We’ve now stopped doing the ones in Rome.
What’s the reasoning behind that? You have said in your newsletter that you would never take a group to Venice or Florence.
Sophie and I were always attracted to bringing people to places they wouldn’t necessarily discover on their own. This started long before COVID. We loved doing it in Rome, but we realized that if we came to Umbria or Puglia, there were so many places that people would never know. It would also be in areas where they really need our tourism commerce.
We’re going to Abruzzo for the first time this year. It is a really, really poor region and doesn’t have a lot of foreign tourism. It’s been hammered by earthquakes and people don’t know where to go because it’s not written about. We’d rather bring people to those kinds of places.
Off the beaten track yes, but also regenerative because we’re leaving a place better than when we arrived. Our imprint is super light and we’re not creating fake experiences. It’s more about meeting the people than seeing the sites.
The last 18 months have been devastating for the tourism industry. What is the situation like now for hospitality in Italy?
The situation now is really critical. I’m lucky—I have other sources of income, but I haven’t worked in a year and a half. For people Sophie’s age, it’s much more critical. Restaurants and food producers have managed to go forward, but hotels are the hardest hit, especially the type of small hotels that we go to. They’re all fully booked now, but hopefully the fall season will go through. It will give a big boost to people’s income but also their morale.
I feel like I was ahead of the curve with my tours, requiring vaccination back in May. I need to see the vaccine proof, passport, and insurance to make sure you’re covered for any eventuality. Only two people thought it was obscene that I was asking them to be vaccinated.
What are you most excited about for your tours ahead?
Usually, I’d only launch one new tour in a season. But Sophie and I are launching three new tours this fall—Abruzzo with Evan Kleiman, Pasta Grannies in Parma with Vicky Bennison who wrote the book, and Sicily. I’m most excited about these three.
My tours have always been small, around 8 to 10 people. Big group tours are over—they’re just not sustainable. The future of travel is small groups to out-of-the-way places. I was just looking at some of our itineraries, things like meeting the head of the lentil association, and walking through lentil fields before going to this old restaurant and having a bowl of lentil soup. Who knew that could be so much fun?
We’re trying now to organize tours to even more out-of-the-way places. My main concern with my tours is finding a hotel. There are regions like Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, amazing places [but difficult to find great places to stay]. Sophie may start a whole new thing. She has a trip to Campania completely planned, but trying to figure out a place to stay. Her trips will cost less than mine.
It used to be that these tours were very seasonal, but it seems people now want them all year long. It’s an interesting development.
Your newsletter is also a big part of your job. What does that look like?
With the rise of Substack last year, I thought I’d shift from using MailChimp [for hosting the newsletter]. It’s free to use, but you can also charge people. I do my monthly newsletter for free, talking about what’s on my mind, links to things I’m reading or watching, travel tips, and a paragraph about my tours. I also offer a parallel premium version, with three extra posts a month. I do a short podcast, share Sunday lunch menu plans, and start a discussion on a hot topic like favorite Italian cookbooks or sustainable travel. The newsletter is a very powerful marketing tool.
Lightning round: Rome
Pizza: For me, pizza is all about tradition and convenience. We go to our local place, Alle Carrette. It’s not going to be on any “hot pizza” list, but it’s really, really great Roman pizza.
Shop: For finding little things in Rome, I like Flakes Design & Arredo in Trastevere. [New York Times writer] Melissa Clark was in Rome last week and I sent her there to buy gifts. For clothes, there’s a little store in our neighborhood called Agata&Nardi. They’re really cool.
Coffee: I’d never send someone across town for a specific coffee place. It’s all about where you are and who you’re meeting. For me, all my favorite coffee places are in Monti because that’s where I live. I love Bar La Licata and Antico Caffe del Brasil. It’s very hard to get a horrible cup of coffee in Rome. I drink about four coffees a day. In the mornings, I have two cups of American coffee at home, half decaf. Midmorning, I’ll have an espresso, and after lunch, another espresso. Usually nothing after 3 or 4 p.m.