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Chow Italia!

From the herbs of Sicily to grain and produce rich Umbria (known as the "Green Heart of Italy"), Italy is a table laden with culinary diversity and opportunity.

And no place is better suited for a cooking school vacation. Whether you want to combine a culinary education with additional touring of Italy or commit to a cuisine-focused week, finding the right school is key. And that means research.

"Considerations are region, type of food you wish to learn about, cost and stay time," says Myrna Horn, owner of Myrna's Travel Service, Inc. in Klamath Falls. Since there are hundreds of cooking schools to choose from, the Internet is a useful tool. "Online, you can see what specialty they have and if it's a good fit," Horn says. "My suggestion is go to the web site and ask for a brochure."

Because each of Italy's many regions specialize in a different cuisine, it's smart to narrow down the menu that best suits the student. As a general rule, Northern Italy's table features hardy, plentiful dishes that focus on lamb, veal and game. Wild mushrooms and truffles from Central Italy are abundantly used as accents and staples including polenta and risotto.

Central Italy offers lighter food that reflects the country's abundant farmland. Tuscany is often considered the hallmark of Italian cooking while Umbria next door stays true to its agricultural heritage. These regions abound in whole grains, breads, vegetables and other lighter dishes.

Heading south leads to Sicily, Basilicata and other regions famous for their own unique style. Contrary to popular culinary belief, tomato paste and garlic are not the staples in Southern Italy. Instead, light, vivid meals flavored with local herbs are more at home in this region.

"Another important consideration is seasonality and budget," says Stephen Abelsohn, owner of Rogue Travel in Ashland. "Winter from our end is the cheapest time to travel, but more cooking schools might be available in the summer. So to stay on budget, a person might have to sacrifice a longer trip and additional sight-seeing in order to attend the desired cooking school."

Usually offered from early spring to late autumn, most schools tend to run a week long, with some offering one-day classes. Class size ranges from five to about a dozen, with most of the cooking lessons taking place in the morning as students prepare lunch (pranzo) and learn regional techniques and ingredients. After enjoying the results of the morning, afternoons often include a field trip to a food-oriented site such as a farm, olive oil collective or winery.

Cost varies widely, depending on season and accommodations. Moderate and luxury lodging is offered by many schools and some might even have a farmhouse or villa available.

To verify a school's legitimacy, run it past the U.S. contacts on

www.italiantourism.com, as Horn does. "Ask them how long the school has been in business and if there are any available references."

If it's your first time, talking to a travel agent who has booked several of these vacations might be a good idea.

But do your research first. Buon appetite!

Chow Italia!