Iphoto: Vino Anthony

Valbruna Italy – A perfect European ski vacation owes as much to culture and conviviality as it does to skiing: The mass in the village church, stumbled into while trudging back to the hotel at dusk, exhausted, exhilarated; the absurdly scenic, leg-scorching terrain, ancient trams, and funky surface lifts; the extended lunches on sun-soaked stone patios; the local cheeses, house-cured meats, and chef’s special pasta (which you didn’t order, couldn’t possibly find room for, but devour, mopping up every last morsel with crusty peasant bread, draining the last of the table wine so as not to seem unappreciative).

But, alas, such grace notes aren’t easy to come by. You need an “in,” a backstage pass, a guide steeped in the culture and customs, fluent in his language and yours. You need Marco Tonazzi, former Italian national slalom champion and maestro of Italy’s high alpine dolce vita.

Tonazzi learned to ski (and hunt mushrooms and make grappa) in the Julian Alps, a rugged mountain chain in the corner of northeast Italy, 90 miles north of Venice, hard on the borders of Austria and Slovenia. Today, he lives in Vail, but owns and operates a three-star hotel in his beloved village of Valbruna, having bought and renovated a dilapidated albergo with his brothers and a group of childhood friends.

Valbruna barely registers on the map, much less the tourist radar screen, so Tonazzi leads annual weeklong, custom ski tours that pierce the heart of the region, launched by three days in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the cradle of Italian alpine chic. His blend of the well-known with the practically undiscovered creates a sum total of more excellent skiing, food, wine, and hospitality than anyone deserves to experience in seven days.

“Everywhere we went, someone yelled ‘Marco!’ and rolled out the red carpet, the homemade grappas, the family recipes,” recalls Larry Stewart, who rebooked for the 2012 edition immediately upon coming home last year. “Adventures appeared day after day without visual effort. People would knock themselves out to do something special.”

Big-mountain skier Chris Anthony (of Warren Miller Films fame) is the off-piste expert and co-guide. “The things we do, you won’t find on Google or in a guidebook. It’s based on Marco’s personal relationships with locals he’s grown up with, his personal ties to owners of local businesses,” he says. “That makes for priceless opportunities at every turn. Things change in midflight, more like a group of friends flowing from one experience to the next.

As a World Cup racer, Tonazzi rarely betrayed a zoned-out focus on the perfect carve. He learned English by Beatles cassette, practiced on everyone within earshot, and traveled with a battered pasta pot, one-burner stove, Parmigiano-Reggiano, EV olive oil, and his mom’s wild-raspberry liquore (la medicina, she called it, a digestive hedge against dodgy dining on the Europa Cup tour). Al dente pasta was frequently on offer in Marco’s and his teammates’ hotel rooms, and you were a fool not to follow the scent of garlic — and sounds of the Fab Four — down the hallway to pasta nirvana. Thirty years on, Tonazzi is still at it, blending skiing, fine food, and good company into trips informally called “Wine & Dine Tours with a Skiing Problem.”

Three days offers only a taste of Cortina’s four ski areas — Falzarego, Tofana, Faloria, and Cristallo (where an old double ascends 2,300 feet right up the gut of a skiable couloir) — plus the exceptional Sella Ronda, a 24-mile skier’s merry-go-round linking four outlying villages by ski lift. Tonazzi knows just which rustic slopeside trattoria to patronize (there’s a shameless abundance at every turn) for hearty lunches of authentic Sudtirol specialities, from bratwurst to polenta to the bubbly melted farmstead cheese known as formaggio fuso.

“The first day everyone grabs their menus and wants to control things, but by day two they’re kicking back and pretty much surrendering. They know if they trust Marco, they’ll never miss out on anything,” says Anthony. “Stuff just comes, and keeps coming, and no one even opens a menu after that.” No one opens a wallet either. Once on tour, everything is taken care of: lift tickets, wine, cappuccinos, strolling late-night gelatos.