The cancellation emails arrived in a wave in late February. Italy’s growing number of COVID-19 cases, increased lockdowns, and travel warnings had rightfully spooked travelers. Over the course of a few days, I watched bookings for food tours and cooking classes with me and my guides and in Rome vanish from our shared Google calendar.
Since moving to Italy in 2003, I’ve given private tours of the Italian capital, first focused on my undergraduate studies in art history and archeology, then transitioning to culinary history, the subject of my M.A. degree. Over the years, I’ve built a small but dedicated staff of guides and administrators. In an instant, we and the nearly 1.5 million tourism workers in Italy faced the agonizing reality that our 2020 income could be wiped out. But months later, February’s panic and anxiety seems quaint as virtually every country has been forced to reckon with a pandemic of still largely undetermined proportions.
All of this spells uncertainty for Italy’s economy, which teeters on the precipice of recession. It will be months, if not years, before the full economic impact is known. But the economy isn’t all that’s at stake here. The nation will be changed when all of this is said and done, though we have no idea when that will be.
As someone who has lived in Italy for 17 years—and before that, 22 in the United States—it’s hard to process all the grief and tragedy that my adopted home and my nation of origin are suffering through. Every aspect of life feels so precarious that at times the only way I’ve been able to derive joy is to help others—and supporting Italian businesses is one of the ways I’ve been able to do that. Here’s how you can share in this effort:
Shop Italian food online
Marco Colzani makes nut spreads like almond, gianduia (chocolate-hazelnut), and pistachio, as well as a line of bean-to-bar chocolate. His laboratorio near Lake Como was in one of the first waves of Italian businesses ordered to shutter.
“We closed in early March per the government mandate,” Colzani said. “My employees are furloughed but I am making deliveries. Bars and restaurants have had to close, so I don’t have those clients at the moment, but some bakeries are still open so I am providing products to some places in Milan. I was granted special permission to do the deliveries.”
Colzani’s creations are also for sale in the United States. In addition to selling Marco Colzani’s chocolates and spreads, Bronx-based Gustiamo also sells a stellar lineup of Italian pasta, olive oil, flour, salted anchovies, and more.
Buy Italian wine from local shops
Further south, in Abruzzo, the Pepe family has been baking bread, playing cards, making garlands from plants in their fields, and filling orders for pasta and olive oil during lockdown. (To purchase, email firstname.lastname@example.org directly.) Winemakers since 1964, the Pepes have grown their business through intensive travel, especially in the United States, to promote their famed montepulciano d’abruzzo, trebbiano, and pecorino-based wines.
Even though winemakers can conduct their field work relatively safely, without risk of coming into contact with others, many of them, including the Pepes, are unable to sell wine directly to consumers because of existing relationships with importers. Luckily, wine shops and restaurants specializing in Italian regional cuisines across the country are still offering pickup and delivery.
Astor Wines and Morrell Wine Shop in New York City stock Emidio Pepe, but you can find excellent Italian wines all over the map. Some of my other favorites include Discovery and Peoples Wine in New York City, Lou and Psychic Wines in Los Angeles, Ordinaire in Oakland, California, Light Years in Houston, and Diversey Wine in Chicago.
Start planning your 2021 trip to Italy now
The Pepe family also runs a bed-and-breakfast on their vineyard in Abruzzo, which is open to all but especially popular among people in the hospitality industry. Their calendar is now empty.
“We were fully booked for Easter but everyone canceled last month,” Pepe said. “We heard from people that they had booked so far ahead and were looking forward to coming to our vineyard. I just hope that after this is all over, travelers and wine buyers will be brave enough to make the choices they had before the virus and that they come back.”
The same is true for family-run hotels across the country. It’s too early to know if travel to Italy in 2020 will be safe, but planning a summer 2021 trip is a fun distraction. To support independent hotels and B&Bs like Pepe’s, consider booking a room for next year—providing a little cashflow for them and something to look forward to for yourself.
For more Italian hotel inspiration, visit AFAR’s Guide to Italy.
Gift a meal to an Italian friend
Restaurants across Italy are also grappling with closures. Sara Cicolini, chef of the restaurant Santo Palato in Rome, closed her doors in mid-March, following the government decree. Since then, she’s snapped into action, transforming her 30-seat trattoria into a delivery-only service, no small feat in a country where trattorias don’t typically offer takeaway—much less delivery—and aren’t even equipped with the basic materials for preparing doggie bags.
“Delivery apps like Uber Eats take 30 percent commission, but it’s the only way for me to do business like this,” said Cicolini, whose lease runs through the end of the year, meaning she can’t shutter completely without being liable for the full balance. To avoid furloughing staff, she’s cut their hours to part-time.
“It’s a desperate situation, but what keeps me going is messages from clients in isolation that tell me eating my food gives them comfort and makes them feel less alone,” she said.
Given that Italy doesn’t really have a gift card culture, Cicolini said one of the ways you can support Italian restaurants is by wiring a donation to cover expenses. She also suggested gifting a meal to a friend.
To do so, reach out to businesses directly. Even if they have a website, the most reliable way to reach trattorias in Italy is to contact them via Facebook or Instagram, both of which are monitored more frequently and with more enthusiasm than email. To contact Santo Palato or Cicolini, visit @santopalatoroma or @chefsaracicolini on Instagram.
Katie Parla is a Rome-based journalist, culinary guide, and cookbook author. Her latest cookbook, Food of the Italian South, features 85 authentic recipes and can be purchased online through your favorite local indie bookstore on indiebound.org.
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