In my new book, Rachael Ray 50, I share the memories and meals that have meant the most to me in my 50 years on the planet. My annual trip to Italy is the longest chapter, and one of the tastiest. Come along to one of my favorite places—then get cooking!

rachael ray 50 book cover and wedding photographs
Cutting the massive semifreddo at our wedding reception in 2005 (and, no, I did not get a slice—too busy tearing up the dance floor). The view from our temporary home in the hills. Retying the knot 10 years later—I could barely walk in those platform heels! But I’d kick them off soon enough.
| Credit: Photography by Christopher Testani. Pictures (From Top): Mark Daniels (2); Timothy White.

When I was a girl, my mom would always wish me sweet dreams at bedtime. In Italian, the expression is sogni d'oro, "dreams of gold." But even when I was young, my dreams seemed to be more sour than sweet, made up of moments in my day-to-day life that scared me, caused me stress, or provided general anxiety. I'm often reliving my toughest moments—whether at school, at work, or at home—trying to change the outcomes of each event that bothered me and working out my deep need to please people. I'm a waitress at heart, even in my sleep, and I want everyone to be satisfied and happy. To that end, sometimes I work so hard in my dreams that I wake up in a sweat. They're not usually made of gold, but of dishwasher-safe stainless steel. 

But a few nights a year, I dream of Italy. These dreams are, in fact, sogni d'oro. In them, I'm falling gently from the sky, into the Tuscan countryside. As my arms rise above my head and my foot touches the earth, I spring back up into the golden sky and I almost take flight, bounding and soaring out over the vineyards and olive groves, over the winding roads dotted with children, cats, and tiny three-wheeled farm trucks. I bounce back up and over the fields filled with the fragrances of herbs and mushrooms, of wild boar and game, of every vegetable and flower. Everything is beautiful, and the air is so rich, it makes me cry. I swear I experience this dream with every one of my senses. I awake in tears, feeling overwhelmed by beauty. 

I love Italy from the top of her boot to the bottom of her heel. I have a deep connection to Sicily, where my mother's family came from, but for years now, I've dreamt only of Tuscany. I dream of it because its fertile environment grows the Sangiovese grapes that produce Brunello di Montalcino, my favorite wine (if I had to choose). I dream of it because it's the first place I can remember spinning around in circles, dizzy from joy—the panoramic, 360-degree views of the vineyards leaving me breathless and awestruck. The tableau of Tuscany is my every fairy tale come to life. I dream of it because it's where I got married. 

My mom found the castle in Montalcino where John and I wed while on vacation with my aunt. My family planned the ceremony and party, and both were breathtaking and very unusual. John and I registered for our marriage license in Florence. It was quite an adventure because we speak minimal Italian, so finding the correct office was challenge enough, let alone getting there during the very limited hours they operate. (I don't think Italians put a lot of importance on paperwork.) The hassle was worth it, as our big day was absolutely beautiful. We walked down the aisle on a sprawling lawn with low walls of stacked stone that enhanced the view by framing the endless vista of vineyards and groves. Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" was playing. We said our vows under what looked like a chuppah draped in flowers, grapes, and vines with an officiant, who was technically Episcopalian, dressed in a robe, rope belt, and sandals. The ceremony site was set next to a large fountain with an obelisk at the center. We crushed a glass for good luck. It was a Catholic-light, Jewish, Da Vinci Code wedding. A little something for everyone. 

For 10 years, we returned to our castle in the Tuscan sky and brought 70 or so people with us to celebrate our anniversary, our friends, great food and music, and life. Isaboo has made every trip. On our 10th anniversary we renewed our vows in the same spot, with Izzy walking me down the aisle. 

For the last few years, we've scaled back a bit. Now we nest in a golden, windy, winding village-turned-villas called Monteverdi. We bring a smaller gang, about 40 friends, some who we see only on this annual pilgrimage. Our guests are mostly chefs and musicians, and all are close friends. They're there for a long weekend, and many fly in early or stay on after to tour on their own. I plan the menus weeks in advance and build elaborate shopping lists and sublists of how to execute the food. I review every recipe and list on the flight, and when we land at the small airport near Perugia, I get a lot of attention and probably cause some annoyance. I'm walking a 65-pound pit bull and toting dozens of bags and boxes of equipment and hard-to-find ingredients. I bring countless spices, in case I can't get what I need in the markets. I even reimport some Italian goods, because I get very specific about every element of each dish. I know. Pazzo. Nuts. It's Italy—they have the best Italian ingredients by definition. But I like to be overprepared, so if the whole country runs out of juniper berries, I can still make my recipe for cinghiale (wild boar). 

ragu alla cinghiale wild boar ragu and bread
Credit: Photography by Christopher Testani

When we get to the villa, I go immediately into the kitchen to unpack, check the groceries that were delivered, organize the kitchen, and begin making my stocks and sauces. 

Not many people get what part of this story sounds like a vacation, but to cook in Italy, to look out all day, anytime I want, at the vistas, and to smell that air and feel the beauty while preparing food for people I love, this is what I live for. Sharing like this—food and wine, and time together with friends so far away from home but growing close together—is what I've worked for my whole life. 

A common toast in Italy at special occasions is Cent'anni! wishing everyone 100 years. A friend of mine, Donna, a vegetarian as it happens, confused this expression with cinghiale. One night Donna rose from the table to toast us and looked straight at me and cheered loudly, Cinghiale! (We've been friends for more than 20 years, so I let it pass that she was calling me a big long-tusked, hairy pig at my own party.) 

This sauce is made with wild boar, which is in season in the fall, when we travel to Tuscany. The recipe is on my menu every year, by demand. There are a few farms that produce boar in America and there are purveyors who carry frozen imported wild boar, but the recipe can also be made with pork shoulder. It marinates for at least a full day, so plan ahead. And Cent'anni! to you and yours!