You could hop a plane to Rome this very afternoon - $535 round-trip from Philly.

Or you could hit the 2009 Philadelphia Flower Show that starts Sunday and runs through March 8 for just $28. The theme - and we need it badly this year - is "Bella Italia," easy to translate even if your name is Smith.

This show isn't jumpy like Ireland or funky like New Orleans - two recent themes. It's a classic, romantic treatment of what the U.S. Tour Operators Association consistently identifies as the most popular international destination for Americans on tour.

All things Italian are popular, especially with Italians. And there are more than 600,000 of them in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. This year, too, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the show's producer, has punched up the theme in hopes that "Bella Italia" will be the Big Bang of modern flower shows, even with the drooping economy.

"Italy was a strategic decision," says show designer Sam Lemheney. "It's based in horticulture, can be translated well, and will resonate with visitors."

The show's central feature - the first thing you see - is about Roman gardens, but for the first time, it'll be surrounded by six additional themed exhibits. They're about Florence, Lake Maggiore, Milan, San Remo, Tuscany and Venice.

"I wanted the central feature to be a 360-degree experience, with entertainment incorporated right into the gardens," Lemheney says.

Here's the full circle:

Rome. J. Cugliotta Landscape/Nursery of Southampton, N.J., designed a formal Roman garden with huge arches, cascading bougainvillea and petunias, an 80-foot fountain, large pillars, statues, and flower-filled urns as tall as five feet. Four smaller gardens - "two wild, two formal" - line a walkway. Joe Cugliotta uses wisteria, roses, delphiniums, spirea, oleander and palm trees in a palette of pink, blue, purple, white, yellow and "peachy salmon."

All this leads to a 28-foot-tall, temple-like stage for daily musical performances. Tiers will be covered in hot-pink and purple flowers, surrounded by Italian cypress, olive and cedar trees, yuccas and agaves.

"Drop-dead gorgeous," Cugliotta says.

Florence. Robertson's Flowers of Chestnut Hill has created "a garden party under a pergola that feels like you're in the back yard of an artist inspired by the Renaissance," says Lisa Roth.

Sunflowers, roses, wisteria and colorful floral arrangements are framed by plexiglass walls etched with images of Mona Lisa, David and other works.

"Hoping to be the next Da Vinci," Roth says.

Lake Maggiore. Stoney Bank Nurseries of Glen Mills, Delaware County, is doing an island garden up north, near the Swiss Alps, that reflects the region's tropical and Alpine climates and everything in between, from palm trees and camellias to rhododendrons and azaleas.

Jack Blandy visited the region in September. "Absolutely unbelievable," he says.

Milan. To illustrate this fashion capital, the American Institute of Floral Designers opens a luxurious boutique filled with dresses, shoes, handbags and hats made of plants and flowers in shades of white, green and beige.

Just the skirt of one ballgown comprises 500 dried PeeGee hydrangea heads. Yes, heads.

"Incredible," says the institute's Ron Mulray.

San Remo. This "Italian Riviera" exhibit by Waldor Orchids of Linwood, near Atlantic City, shows an elegant hotel lobby with courtyard, reflecting pool, pergola, and a view of the Mediterranean. Throughout are palm and olive trees, succulents and bougainvillea, and orchids everywhere in "red, yellow, orange, deep lavender . . . bright, flamboyant colors.

"Real Italian flair," says Waldor co-owner Walt Off.

Tuscany. Burke Bros. Landscape Contractors of Glenside, Montgomery County, combines art, sculpture and flowers in a modern country garden. It has burnt-orange stucco walls, fountains, and almost 1,000 flowering plants and trees, with plenty of lavender and (cut) sunflowers. Rydal Elementary School third and fifth graders, among them Kevin Burke's children, have painted a three-panel sunflower mural.

"Very inviting and warm," Burke says.

Venice. Jamie Rothstein Distinctive Floral Designs of Old City envisions a wedding day scene in a small Venetian palazzo with private garden, stone bridge, canal and gondola festooned in white flowers.

Finally, the celebration is over. The bride and groom have gone upstairs.

"Quietly elegant, very serene," Rothstein says.

There is lots more to see and learn at the show. You can also eat, drink and buy materials with or without Italian themes. Just think of all the money you saved on airfare.