Marlene Iaciofano of Morris Township, owner of Gourmet Getaways, customizes culinary vacations that leave travelers asking for seconds. Working with small groups, the entrepreneur leads tours of Italy that include stays at four- and five-star hotels, cooking classes and meals at Michelin star restaurants.
Having spent years cultivating relationships when she worked as an outside sales agent in the travel industry over 20 years ago, Iaciofano is able to help travelers extend their stays beyond her usual seven-day excursions if they wish.
For Iaciofano, who went to Italy on her first culinary tour in the late 1990s, food has been a lifelong love. On that trip, fellow travel agents agreed that this career would be a recipe for success for the culinary connoisseur.
"I decided I was going to go on a culinary vacation because that was new in the '90s," Iaciofano explained. "As I was working one day I saw a brochure come through and I said to my husband, 'This is an occupational hazard to look at this brochure and not do it."
While getting her venture in adventure up and running hasn't been a piece of cake, Iaciofano said it has been a journey she has savored. Beginning with week-long trips to cooking schools in Italy, she supplemented her business with one-day outings to New York City.
"I went through 9/11 and the economy and the economy again," she said, "but now, my business has changed. It's now customized trips with a sprinkling of a one-day class here and a one-day class there. I have gotten away from representing the week-long cooking schools. I also think that some people may not want that whole week."
Much of Iaciofano's business comes by word-of-mouth and many of her customers return, saying "We'll go wherever you're going," she said. She also gets ideas for future trips from listening to input from her companions.
The wayfarer, who takes an Italian language class once a week, feels that in order to get the true flavor of Italy, one must visit more than once.
"You can't just go one time and say' I've been there', you have to really take the time to experience an area," she said
Florence, Orvieto, Rome and the Amalfi Coast are Gourmet Getaways' most popular destinations.
"It's a great experience. It's a fun-loving time and you meet nice people," she said.
Iaciofano charges a $250 consultation fee, which covers the cost of her time and research.
"People do not realize how involved I get in planning their trip," she explained. "I try to, if they've never been especially, hold their hand and guide them the entire way. There's a lot of work that's involved. There's a lot of emails going back and forth: trying to find the right tour for somebody, trying to find the right hotel, trying to match them in their price range to the right hotel in the right location. There's a lot that goes into it."
The seasoned traveler said she only represents four- and five-star hotels. "I believe your hotel influences your ideas about that town," she said. "It'll make or break your whole holiday. I get to know the manager and when I send people on a customized trip, I will email the manager to say, 'These are my clients and they are watched over.'"
The consultation fee also includes an extensive interview to find out what travelers like, what they want to see, and other important information that will make the trip as comfortable and memorable as possible.
A description of her most recent excursion would make a listener's mouth water.
"I have a very good relationship with the manager at the Excelsior Vittoria hotel in Sorrento and we put together a very nice welcoming," she said. "What we did was, they arrived on a Sunday and they had a private transfer from the Rome airport all the way down to Sorrento. When they got there, we had a private chef work with everybody and we had a pizza cooking class by the pool. We had gorgeous weather and we sat amongst the lemon trees and finished our pizza and had some wine.
"The next day we went to a mozzerella factory and a limoncello factory and we even had the opportunity to braid our own mozzerella and we had a beautiful tasting. One day, we had a free day, we took the time to walk the streets of Sorrento and then we went to Capri and had some fantastic dinners. We went to a Michelin star restaurant in Sorrento, and because of my connection with the manager, we had a private area in the restaurant, who opened it up just for me and my people, and we had a phenomenal dinner in the hills of Sorrento."
Iaciofano said the highlight was a side trip to Mamma Agata's, which she said is the ultimate cooking school. The chef has cooked for celebrities from Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Pierce Brosnan.
"You walk along a walled street, you knock on the door and she opens it up and you go down the steps and before you is the Bay of Salerno. It's just magnificient where the mountain meets the water," the travel host said. "You cook with her; you taste with her. Her daughter Chiara is the one who does all the translating, and between the two of them, they have this great little relationship going."
During a break, visitors are welcome to roam Mamma Agata's grounds which include lemon trees, from which the chef produces lemon cakes and the finest limoncello on the coast, Iaciofano said.
"Then you come back and sit down to a four- or five-course meal; it is amazing," Iaciofano said.
Her upcoming trip this October, which will focus on wine tastings and pairings, is already filled.
What does a once-in-a-lifetime trip cost?
"Prices vary depending on the area. It varies depending on what we're doing, but I'll say an average of $4500 without air for seven days, per person, double occupancy," she said.
As for her own culinary explorations, the gourmand believes her travels have helped her in the kitchen. "I've gotten so much better over the years, but I've always had this passion to cook," said Iaciofano.
The mother of two has passed on her love of all things edible to her children, John and Elana, who co-author a food blog.
Iaciofano also teaches a two-night class at the Madison Adult School "Passport to Travel: Success to Italy" twice a year, in which she gives students helpful hints for shopping and dining as well as vocabulary tips for travel and safety.