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Mark McDonald's Southern Italy

Orange County chef Mark McDonald craves culinary adventures. “It’s what I live for,” he says, adding that he thinks travel is the ultimate opportunity to learn about other cuisines and cultures. McDonald, owner of Old Vine Café at the Camp in Costa Mesa, enjoys travel – and sharing his experiences – so much that he leads culinary tours to Italy in his spare time, teaming with master chef John Nocita of the Italian Culinary Institute in Staletti, Italy, where McDonald trained. The chefs will lead two 10-day tours in April, one focusing on Southern Italy and the other on Northern Italy. “It’s like a second home to me,” says McDonald. “After living in Southern Italy as a culinary student a decade ago, I love that I’m able to return annually to share this magical place with my friends.”

Time is right
Spring is my favorite time to visit the area. The countryside is bright green and covered with wildflowers, and the weather is mild. During the summer, temperatures in Southern Italy can reach over 100 degrees. Winter brings lots of rain. Spring is also offseason for tourists, so there’s no worry about fighting crowds in Sicily.

After dark
Nightlife varies based on location. For instance, in Taormina there are several lounges to enjoy cocktails or live music. In smaller towns in Calabria there might be a bar that features nightly entertainment like a solo musician
or karaoke.

Why Southern Italy?
Calabria and Sicily are two of the most culturally and historically rich regions of Italy and offer amazing diversity in regional cuisine. They are places travelers rarely have a chance to see, and yet they’re full of ancient ruins, charming villages and gastronomic delights.

Secret tip
Don’t miss the town of Castelmola. Taormina is known for its great views, but picturesque Castelmola, perched high above it, has stunning views of the Sicilian coastline and Mount Etna. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike up to Castelmola; if you want to spend more time exploring and less time hiking, take a shuttle from Taormina.

Buy in
Hands down the best shopping in Southern Italy is found in Taormina, Sicily. Whether you’re looking for designer clothes, handmade leather goods, artisan pottery, jewelry, local food and wine, or souvenirs, the shops along Corso Umberto have something for everybody. For local color, when you’re in Calabria try to visit the weekly market in Soverato, which is where residents purchase their fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, fish and other dried or cured goods.

Must do
One of my favorite places is in Calabria, near Pizzo, a picturesque cliffside town overlooking the Gulf of St. Eufemia.  Legend has it that a group of sailors were shipwrecked here in the 17th century; they prayed to be saved, promising to build a church. Visitors today walk down a winding path to the beach, arriving at a doorway in the cliff, the entrance to the little Church of the Piedigrotta. Then you wander through five dimly lit chambers carved into the rocky cliff, each one containing hand-carved statues. It’s an amazing place.

Best bite
Some of the best restaurant experiences I’ve had in Calabria are at agritourismos. These are farms that serve meals comprised entirely of food that is both grown and produced on-site. This past year my Splendors of South Italy tour group sampled 4-hour-old cheese made from the milk of the goats that roamed around the property. As we ate the cheese we could look out the window and see the goats grazing. It was surreal.

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