A family food adventure in Italy
With a menu that includes ramerino in culo - rosemary up your bum - it's easy to see why a degustation lunch at a famous Panzano butchery might appeal to even the youngest of diners.
Antica Macelleria Cecchini is a Tuscan restaurant run by ebullient butcher Dario Cecchini, who counts Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman as fans.
Larger-than-life Dario presides over a meaty kingdom, where the crown jewel is a six-course beef extravaganza for the princely sum of €30 ($49) a head.
I won't lie: our two boys, Patrick, 5, and Braden, 7, were overwhelmed by so much carnivorous fare and eventually escaped with a vegetarian friend promising gelato, but not before their taste buds tucked in to some new treats.
The menu focuses on unusual cuts of grass-fed beef, taking you from the muzzle to the legs and tail, travelling from the frying pan to the grill, oven, pot and skillet.
The dishes included the aforementioned ramerino in culo - barely seared meatballs skewered on sticks of rosemary, and tenerumi in insalata, a salad of raw, marinated vegetables with warm slivers of beef from the cow's knee bone.
There was a more familiar-tasting spicy meat ragu, a roast beef dish and some tasty sides including crunchy fresh fennel and cooked white cannellini beans.
With so much meat on the menu, the kids were more willing than usual to tackle the vegetables. We rounded out this generous spread with a surprisingly flavoursome torta all'olio - olive oil cake - and coffee for dessert.
When the meal was over, diners spilled onto the cobblestone street, where Dario took the time to chat and pose for photos, cementing his connection between the people and the food.
This connection to the people behind the scenes seems to be a key drawcard for involving our boys in new food experiences.
When our family stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast in Parma, our host Bruno Maggiali offered to take us on a private tour of his Parmigiano Reggiano co-operative.
In the cool of the early morning, Bruno walked us through the cheese-making process, from milk collection in vast copper vats, to the addition of whey, the transfer to moulds, a minimum 12-month maturation in brine and finally to the shop front.
We were even introduced to the cows, who spend their entire lives in the farm barns.
Braden and Patrick were encouraged to ask questions and were stunned to discover it takes 1000 litres of milk to make just one round of cheese.
Each weighs about 40 kilograms and must meet strict guidelines in order to earn the much-lauded Parmigiano Reggiano stamp.
Back at the farmhouse, our appetites were primed for the lavish breakfast prepared by Bruno's wife, Simona.
Both the flaky, straw-coloured parmesan and another local hero, Parma ham, were on the menu, alongside freshly laid eggs, a variety of breads and home-made jams.
There was a glimmer of approval in our children's eyes - it was clear they were impressed by having met the people and the animals behind the feast before them.
Bruno had also organised for us to do a tour and tasting at his friend's balsamic vinegar aceteria.
Alessandra Medici is carrying on the work of several generations at Medici Ermete, near Modena, brewing the syrupy, aged vinegar that is so precious it is dispensed from an eye-dropper for tasting.
This traditional Italian balsamic, quite unlike the stuff we splash on salads in Australia, takes a minimum of 12 years to mature, with the top-of-the-line vinegar aged for 29 years in barrels of chestnut, cherry, mulberry, juniper and oak.
It's not a money-making exercise, Alessandra explains, but a labour of love and a family tradition. Braden and Patrick were understandably confused by the idea that a set of old barrels might be part of a daughter's dowry or bequeathed in a will.
Almost as tightly regulated as the Parmigiano industry, balsamic vinegar produced in the Reggio Emilia province must be made from grapes grown within the region.
The vinegar comes from the fermentation of "must", the product that remains after the grapes have been pressed and the stems and seeds removed.
The must is cooked, reduced by a third, then stored in tanks to kick off the fermentation process.
Later, the liquid is transferred to the barrels that allow evaporation via a small, cloth-covered opening, intensifying the flavour of the balsamic vinegar.
The barrels are stored in the attic of a stone farm building next to neat rows of vines and a farmhouse with a comfortable tasting room.
Long-held suspicions that our boys had expensive tastes were confirmed quickly - they licked their tasting spoons clean and were bold enough to ask for more.
At €80 ($132) for 100 millilitres, the balsamic is a luxury item but we couldn't resist buying this foodie souvenir, which tastes divine drizzled over vanilla ice-cream or strawberries.
A highlight of our foodie experiences with the kids was a half-day cooking lesson at our Tuscan villa in Arezzo.
Chef Fabrizio's enthusiasm for the local cuisine was a good match for the boys' energy levels and the menu ensured a hands-on afternoon for big as well as little people.
Fabrizio had already catered for a number of group lunches and dinners during our month-long stay at Villa Rossi Mattei, so we knew we were in good hands when our party of seven filed into the kitchen to make some Italian favourites.
First up, Fabrizio showed us how to make puff pastry, working a whole slab of butter into a chilled portion of dough, a process of rolling, folding and rotating until all the butter is incorporated.
Leaving the newly made pastry to chill, Fabrizio produced some he had made earlier so we could make Panzerotti toscani.
We helped Fabrizio stuff the pastry with tomato and mozzarella and made a tomato cream to drizzle over the top.
If, like me, good pastry makes you swoon, you'll appreciate the silence that enveloped the kitchen when these savoury pastries emerged from the oven for tasting. The boys passed on the sauce but thought the pastries were excellent.
Sealing these pastries with the back of a fork was fun, but nowhere near as entertaining as the hand-cranked pasta machine.
We took turns to make and knead the pasta dough for the ravioli, which would be stuffed with shrimp and a dash of squid ink.
Braden and Patrick clamoured to take first turn at the pasta machine, rolling out silky sheets of pasta with Fabrizio's expert guidance.
He let them crank out spaghetti just for laughs and they then each showed fabulous technique with the pasta cutter.
A hearty, tomato-based beef stew was left to simmer on the stovetop and for dessert we had requested tiramisu made the authentic way, with savoiardi biscuits and mascarpone cheese.
For this and for most of our Italian foodie experiences, the boys were free to run in and out at their leisure, taking their dustings of flour and straps of raw pasta dough into the sunshine for a break.
This meant the adults were able to indulge a love of cooking, eating and learning the history of some of Italy's beloved bounty without dumbed-down tours or frayed tempers.
And while I confess I'm yet to make pasta from scratch back home, I know I'll have two kitchen hands ready to crank when I do.
STAYING THERE In Arezzo, Villa Rossi Mattei is a large home dating to the 1800s and is ideal for group bookings. Prices start at $8000 for a group of 20 staying one week. tuscany-villas.com.
Sydney Morning Herald