How to eat well in Italy! Or, how to maximize your time in the land of the most incredible food. This should be a fairly easy feat, considering the landscape but friends, it’s not. After traveling to the most popular places in Italy a few times now, I’m ready to let you in on the secrets. The tips and tricks to having OMG dining moments at every turn.
First, the reality. The most popular sites in Italy are also tourist sites, fledged with foreign crowds, souvenir carts and kitschy food offerings. I’ll never forget my first time in the country; BL and I flew into Venice for what we hoped to be a long, romantic weekend filled with canal rides, homemade pasta and moonlit strolls on St. Mark’s square. We arrived in the middle of a torrential downpour and scurried into the nearest pizzeria, soaked to the bone with luggage in tow. Ok, here we go! We’d been practicing our Italian for the past few weeks, confident enough to order, but unable to go beyond that. Then the menus arrived, a laminated, picture-coded display of the offerings, in five different languages. Immediately, I felt flashbacks to Disney’s Epcot, with the many themed restaurants and costumed wait-staff. This wasn’t the Italy I had been dreaming about.
So, after a meal that even Domino’s would shudder at, I began to do my research.
While the below guide is primarily focused on Italy (since we got back less than a week ago), these notions hold well to most foreign travel.
Get away from the crowds:
I liken this best to Times Square or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Both are must-visit destinations while in those cities, but not for the food. Unless you really love overpriced, mediocre meals. Wander away to where the natives of the city actually live and visit the restaurants that they go to. In Rome, some of my favorite places are found in the Trastevere area, across the river from the Trevi fountain, Colosseum and Spanish steps. In my opinion, this is where the best of Rome’s food scene hides, confirmed by our latest trip and the 5-star meal at Le Mani in Pasta, filled with locals. The same is also true in Florence, where dining in Oltrarno is usually superior to spots around the Duomo. My favorite places include Al Tranvai and Pandemonio.The one exception to this rule is when you care more about the backdrop than you do the food. Sometimes, people and place watching is superior, and that’s OK. One of my favorite places in Tuscany is the Piazza del Campo in Siena, a medieval, pedestrian-only square that’s lined with cafes, geletarias, and souvenir shops. The offerings are usually double what you would find a few blocks away and yet, it doesn’t matter. I could spend hours on this square, sipping on a campari spritz, eating bruschetta and studying passerby’s. The fact that my drink and appetizer costs more than my next meal? Worth it only for the backdrop.
It should be busy.
Great restaurants aren’t secrets. If it’s busy at 8PM with a wait since 7, you know you’ve found a memorable meal. I’ve never not been wrong about this fact, one I’ve learned my lesson on countless times when after a long day of walking, I’m famished and not willing to wait. Get a snack while you wander the neighboring streets and try to get a table, it’s always, always worth it. These days, it’s fairly easy to get a reservation, either by phone or by stopping by earlier in the evening. We didn’t have cell phones the first time BL and I traveled there, and we made-do by stopping by places the previous evening for the following night.
Scan the menu.
As mentioned in the opening story, menus shouldn’t have pictures or multiple languages on it. I get that many establishments are trying to make dining without knowing the language easier, and I really do appreciate that effort. However, for the most part, if you are catering to tourists then you’re likely also taking short-cuts that hungry travelers won’t notice. I’m OK being uncomfortable, it’s what makes traveling to an unknown location so exhilarating. I love meals where the only words the waiter and I mutually understand is vino della casa (house wine). If I haven’t done research ahead of time, I’ll take a quick scan of the menu (or peak at what other diners have ordered). If I see the words menu turistico (tourist menu) or giant photos, I pass. Preferably, the menu should be small, a good sign that they are only serving what’s in season and change their offerings often. The only exception I’ve ever had to this rule is Trattoria ZaZa’s in Florence. The sprawling restaurant near the central market comes with all of the above and yet, it’s still one of my favorite lunch spots.
Do a little research.
This doesn’t have to take hours and hours, but I prefer to crowd-source my options if I’m headed to a brand-new-to-me place. At least for the first night or two, until I can get a lay of the land and seek out other contenders by foot. Abroad, I prefer Trip Advisor to Yelp since it’s usually more robust in it’s reviews. After making the initial evenings reservation (to avoid long waits or guessing games), I’ll make a list of 5-10 places I’d love to try when I’m there. Then, I’ll do a drive-by while exploring to narrow down my favorites.
Start at the market.
In Italy, they say, La miglior cucina comincia dal mercato (the best cuisine starts from the market). To me, this means a few things. One, go to the market! Even the smallest towns will have a central market, spend time there. It’s where you will find not only fresh produce, but quick, street-food style meals that the locals enjoy on lunch breaks. The market also gives you a sense of what’s in season and then implore you to try those items when dining out.
Piece together a meal.
For vegetarians, Italy is easier than many other Western European countries, but it does require a bit of creativity. For the most part, it’s difficult to make substitutions. While I have no problem ordering various dishes sans meat in the States, that request is a little more arduous when I don’t speak the language well and their house dishes are enveloped in pride. At risk of insulting them, I seek out a naturally vegetarian pasta/soup to start, then round out the meal with lots of contorni, vegetables. Italians take their vegetables very seriously, no boiled broccoli here. Instead, you’ll likely find sautéed greens, salads and beans.
Dinner is the evening.
When you enjoy a full-blown Italian dinner, with multiple courses and drinks, it can last for hours. Such a welcome reprieve from how we usually eat here, rushing to the next spot or itching to get home. Not in Italy. While this recommendation has less to do with the actual food and more with the experience, allow yourself to slow down and take it all in. Order the dessert, order the after-dinner limoncello and linger.
Add in activity.
You know I don’t actively track my weight, but one of the big surprises that I always get after weeks of travel is that I rarely feel like I’ve gained anything. Compared to my day-to-day life in St. Louis, I’m much more active when I get the chance to explore a new city. On our last trip, we clocked over 80 miles, averaging 10 miles per day. That’s a lot of activity and makes the constant snacking seem much less indulgent. It’s also why I allow myself to really enjoy on vacation: croissants at breakfast, gelato at 2PM and pasta anytime I feel like it.
Friends, I know this post seems obsessive. I mean, I did write an entire cookbook on Italian cuisine, so it’s not like we didn’t expect this list at some point. Italians are so incredibly passionate about food, it’s almost a religion in itself. AND, if you are a food lover like me, Italy is where to go. Personally, I think that Italy has some of the best food on the planet. On our last trip, we hit a home run for almost every, single meal and I know it’s because we did our homework. So, wherever you’re next plane-ride takes you, I hope you enjoyed this food for thought. Bon Appetito!