Francesca Montillo is an Italian-American cookbook author and travel enthusiast who turned her passion for food and travel into a career. She is the owner of Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures, a travel company that brings small groups to different regions of Italy to learn about the food and the culture. She also teaches cooking classes in the Boston area (and online during the pandemic).
Meet Francesa Montillo, owner of Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures
Francesca and I have more than just an Italian travel company in common.
I forget exactly how I stumbled upon Francesca and Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures, but I do remember what prompted me to reach out to her. She's based in the Boston area (as I was for a long time, and where most of my family still lives). But there's even more that connects us. When looking at her social media, I saw a photo from a beach in Italy that I immediately recognized.
Lido San Domenico in Soverato
I've written about my Italian roots on the blog before. Since that blog, I've traveled south to Calabria several times more, and every time I go I visit the same beach not far from where my grandmother grew up. The blue and white umbrellas and the beautiful, blue sea were instantly recognizable. I sent her a message introducing myself and asking her if the beach was the one I thought it was. She confirmed, and it turns out that she was born in the village right next to my grandmother and returns every summer for a typical Italian vacation!
Our tours are different in style, but are similar in substance. We share many of the same values, and we both strive to offer a truly authentic Italian experience, using food and culture as drivers.
I recently interviewed Francesca, and the Q&A is below. Also, at the bottom of the blog I link to her latest cookbook, Pasta in a Pinch. I highly recommend it (and I also have my own copy)!
What’s the name of the town you’re from in Italy?
I was born in Catanzaro, in Calabria and grew up in a teeny tiny town called Palermiti. My mom still has a house there, so we return whenever we can.
Tell me about some of the traditional food/ingredients you are up with.
My dad was a greengrocer in Italy, so I grew up valuing the benefits of really great quality produce. He used to drive a three-wheeled Ape vehicle and would go around town selling his produce. Often, whatever went unsold would become lunch or dinner for the week. The produce was often organic, although we didn’t even know what that meant at the time! In the summer, we would enjoy lots of flat Italian green beans (my favorite), tomatoes, zucchini, the blossoms from the zucchini, and so much more. The peaches, figs and melons were also some of my favorites. Needless to say, we didn’t mind when produce went unsold, it never went to waste!
Tell me about Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures. How did you come up with the idea?
I’ve had the idea for this business since my teens, but it wasn’t until about 2014 that I decided to make it a go at it. It started really small, and truthfully, it still is, especially these days, but that’s ok because I never dreamed of being a huge touring agency in the least bit. I like small so I can control everything myself and can participate in every tour. If I have to hire someone to lead the tours, it defeats the purpose of why I started to begin with. So I took what I love the most, traveling and cooking and combined the two, really. Food is such a huge component of what Italy is. We’re known worldwide for high quality food, and let’s admit it, no matter how great of a cook one is, nothing prepared in the US will taste as good as what we can get in Italy! I don’t know if it’s the water, the air or what, but everything tastes better in Italy, so I wanted everyone to experience that, even if only for a week, or two.
Why did you start Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures?
I moved to Boston when I was 11 years old. My mom grew up in the North End, so for her, it was like returning home. She loves it here and had always wanted to move back. My dad on the other hand, was a true Italian to the core, and I took after him. I love Italy and all it has to offer. So the short and honest answer is that I started my business to allow me to travel back to my native land more often! The long, and equally as honest, answer is that I wanted to showcase Italy to as many people as possible. I wanted to introduce people to my Italy, which I think is different from someone else’s version of Italy. I love food so I wanted to focus on the food and wine aspect of Italy, which is as important as its history, culture and art.
Where is your favorite place to take guests in Italy? Why?
Oh what a question! It’s like picking favorite children! I love southern Italy so of course, that’s a favorite. Sicily, Puglia, hopefully a tour of Calabria soon. The south is authentic, raw, and unpretentious. I always say that southern Italy has a “take me as I am” attitude. It doesn’t cater to tourists, it doesn’t put on a show, it’s authentically wonderful. But northern Italy is classy, stylish, artsy. I’ve done tours in Emilia Romagna, in Veneto, in Tuscany, and these are also wonderful destinations! I honestly can’t pick! Each region, no, each city, has its own value and I love them all for different reasons.
Any memorable moments from a tour you want to share.
Oh so many. There is one that immediately comes to mind. I was leading a tour in Veneto and there was a woman in her 50s on the tour, and she was traveling solo. This was her first ever international trip, first time flying. She and husband were supposed to travel to Italy together but her husband sadly died unexpectedly the year prior. She was very emotional during the entire tour, overwhelmed really because it was her first ever trip, she was missing her husband, and she was overcome by it all. By the end of the week, she was a changed woman. She had made new friends, experienced new activities, saw that there is life outside her home state, and life after her husband’s passing. It was surreal to watch her blossom over a short week.
Another memorable experience happened in Sicily. It was a particularly amicable group and everyone immediately bonded with each other. One night after our group dinner, we took a nice walk in the center of Ortigia. Someone in the group bought a bottle of limoncello and invited everyone to his room to drink it. Well, soon enough, we were all in his room, drinking local limoncello, munching on local sweets, laughing hysterically at each other’s stories and jokes. I mean, we all had tears in our eyes! I had to step back and take it all in for a minute. I had managed to bring this group together, and create this incredibly moment in their lives. I had tears of joy by the end!
When did you start teaching cooking classes?
So Covid really did a number on my business. All my tours for 2020 were postponed and 2021 is in question. I had been teaching in person cooking classes for a number of years, but Covid put a stop to those as well. So I thought with everything going Zoom, would cooking classes work? I knew exercise classes, piano lessons, even art lessons were being done on Zoom, so I decided to give it a shot in the summer of 2020. I’m really thankful I did as they have taken off, it’s given me a social outlet to interact with people, and it’s keeping my business relevant. I have published 2 cookbooks so far, so we cook some of the recipes from the books, but many are recipes are dishes I grew up on.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
I love cooking anything that doesn’t take hours of preparation or a laundry list of ingredients. Pasta, vegetables, chicken, seafood are all my favorites. My first cookbook is called The 5 Ingredient Italian Cookbook and my second book is called Pasta in a Pinch, so that gives you an idea of my cooking style. Having said that, I perhaps love baking above all else! I have a sweet tooth and enjoy a baked desert with coffee, nothing fancy, a simple biscotto will do, but I do love to bake, especially in the winter.