Off the Beaten Path With Ralph ModenaRalph Modena is not a guy who runs into a store, picks up an item, pays, and exits silently, especially when he visits Italy. If he eats in a restaurant, he wants to meet the chef. He plies the manager of his hotel with questions about the neighborhood, and talks politics with the taxi driver. In other words, when he travels, it’s not his way to be silently reverent as though he were visiting a museum. He likes to mix it up, wants to interact, get behind the scenes, and understand what he sees, maybe because he studied history, he says. Over the years, he’s developed a service that provides visitors to Italy with the same kind of personal interaction.

For more than 25 years, Ralph has been an insurance broker with Well Fargo bank, handling corporate insurance packages from his Virginia office. Even though his paternal grandfather and grandmother were born in Southern Italy, it took him 40 years before he visited their birthplace, a coastal town called Maratera in Basicilicata, where he took his young family 19 years ago. But after that first trip, he couldn’t wait to return, and return he did, usually three times a year over the next twenty years. His wife complained that there was more to life than Italy. But Ralph didn’t think so.

Each time he returned from a trip to Italy, he brought back stories, and everybody listened, his co-workers, his clients, his physician, his dentist, his lawyer, the neighbors, the garbage collector. Their enraptured responses were always the same. “Ralph, take us with you!” So he did. And the result is All Things Italian,, Tastes, Tours, Treasures, which he finally formalized as a real business one year ago. For now, the Tours part of Tastes, Tours, and Treasures is his most developed service, but he expects to put more energy into Tastes and Treasures so that people can order Italian foods and artisanal products from his website that they may have enjoyed while visiting there.

Ralph caters to visitors, who have already done the Rome-Florence-Venice marathon, he says, and want to get off the beaten path with a guide, who speaks English and can introduce them to farmers, chefs, and artisans, who together are the real heart of Italy, the glassmakers, coppersmiths, leather workers, chocolate makers, whose very skills are endangered, as the creation of all goods becomes mechanized. Ralph provides a real conversational exchange between these Italians and American visitors.

Ralph encourages people not to travel too much but to pick three or four places and fan out from there, digging deeper into the experience. But he’s totally flexible, and his network of guides will create a route that suits the interests of any traveler. This year, he has one group that wants to just shop in Milan. Another group, a family of four, wants to drive themselves and hike up to Cinque Terre, then back to Verona and Venice, then up into the Dolomites. The family has asked him to set up destinations for them, where they will find English speakers. He says that he can customize and personalize a route for anyone with any interest. Some may wish to visit remarkable churches and archeological and historical sites. In wine country, he can recommend big, famous wineries, but he suggests the experience in smaller ones that will host visitors, provide accommodations and extraordinary food. He’s arranged family heritage and exploration tours, culinary and wine tours, hiking, biking and skiing tours, and tours of the coast or the countryside. Even in cities, he’ll take visitors off the beaten path, for instance introducing them to the oldest and best gelato maker in Rome.

When I asked how he was paid for designing such travels, he laughed. His business is definitely a non-profit at this point. He’s trying to do things right, he says, and keep costs down. But in the future, profits that he might earn, he expects to devote to an activity center for adult autistic people like his 29-year old daughter Laura. So now is the time to take advantage of Italian Tastes, Tours, and Treasures off the beaten path. You can email Ralph from the website or call him at 304-716-6164. Buon Viaggio!