I am not an expert on Italy. Though I’ve studied the cuisine in-depth for many years and visited more times than I can count, I’ve never lived there, and my grasp of the language (despite a full load of coursework in college molti anni fa, many years ago) is middling. That is not a disclaimer; rather, it’s exactly what qualifies me to write this article.
You see, the wonderful lesson I’ve learned is that you really don’t need to stock up on guidebooks or do exhaustive research or even speak much Italian to eat exceedingly well in Italy, though a basic culinary lexicon certainly helps. All you have to do is pack a pair of good walking shoes — and be prepared to unpack a few truisms. Here are a few I’ve taken to heart, with some amendments, through the years.
1. Look past the obvious, it’s not far
The maxim that best, most “authentic” dining is off the beaten tourist path has its merits, but the implication is that you must go some prescribed distance, say, deep into residential areas, to find the gems. That’s not necessarily so. Let’s take Venice as an example. Yes, the overwhelming odds are that in any of the large-scale restaurants along the Grand Canal or in Piazza San Marco, you’re paying for bells and whistles — picturesque views, live music, relatively elegant service — rather than a memorable meal made from fresh local ingredients.
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But in the magical maze that is Venice, getting off the beaten path is often simply a matter of turning a corner to find yourself on a calle (street) or in a corte (courtyard) that’s either refreshingly quiet or filled with locals going about their business. I recently discovered a remarkable osteria — a veritable sanctuary of superb cicchetti (essentially bar snacks) and some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, from classics like sarde in saor to creations like spaghetti with fresh tuna, mushrooms and strawberries — not by dint of its virtually unmarked entrance right on the jam-packed Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni, but rather by turning onto the seemingly empty alley behind it only to find a few tables around its back door lined with Italian-speaking patrons digging into plates of what looked like (and was) perfectly fried calamari. Which brings me to the next lesson:
2. Less is more when it comes to advertising
The claim that the less a restaurant advertises itself, especially in English, the better is largely true. Elaborate displays of ingredients, florid greetings from waiters stationed at the entrance and/or prominent signs reading “Menu turistico” (tourist menu) or “No frozen food!” are generally bad omens, for the obvious reason that the best eateries needn’t resort to such promotional ploys. They survive on genuine word of mouth, just as they do here.
3. To eat like an Italian in Italy, look at menus through their eyes
Relatedly, beware of menus that are translated into several languages, offer a broad range of dishes and/or contain pictures. This rule’s also true. If you’ve come to eat as Italians eat, look for kitchens that cater to them, not to foreigners who haven’t done their homework.
4. A little research goes a long way
On that note: Do your homework. I promised earlier that you don’t have to embark on a comprehensive research project, and I meant it. But if you spend even 30 minutes online with the aim of getting to know a given region’s specialty dishes, you’ll have the rudiments of an education that perusing menus will only reinforce once you’ve arrived at your destination.
I specify a regional rather than a national search because historically, Italian cuisine has not been a monolithic entity but rather has varied greatly from the Alpine northwest to the Mediterranean coast to the bread basket of the southeast.
The same goes for wine. In a country with thousands of native grape varieties unheard of on our shores, it’s far more fun in my view to take a chance on a hyper-local discovery than to go with what you know, even if what you happen to know is world-class. You can have Champagne or even Barolo at home anytime, but you can’t drink, say, Pignoletto frizzante outside of Emilia-Romagna. (Of course, if you’re in Piedmont, by all means sip Barolo to your heart’s content.)
5. Know a tavola from a trattoria
Be aware that there are various classes of establishments and adjust your expectations accordingly. The word bar has a different connotation in Italy than it does here. A bar in Italy is open all day for coffee, spremuta (fresh-squeezed juice) and booze, plus pastries, sandwiches and snacks, and features counter or minimal table service (or, more usually, a combination of both). A tavola calda (“hot table”) is set up in the style of an American cafeteria. Think of the osteria (spelled hostaria around Venice) as a tavern and the trattoria as a bistro, while the ristorante is the fanciest class of eatery. And finally, there’s the enoteca, which tends to be a hybrid between a wine shop and a wine bar.
None of these classifications concern quality; you could have some of the best food of your life in a tavola calda, followed by an overpriced bummer of a meal at a ristorante. The point is that you should consider what sort of experience you’re looking for, and then follow the guidelines above.
6. The best gelato may not look it
Gelaterias are a bit of a crapshoot, so proceed with caution. The labels nostra produzione, produzione propria (“our production”) or artigianale used to be guarantees of excellence. In my view, that’s no longer true — no surprise given how the concept of artisanship has been hijacked here in the States. Which leaves color as the best indicator: If the hues in the bins are garish, artificial flavoring is likely the culprit. Gelato shouldn’t be too fluffy, either. I hate to put it this way, but the less appealing it looks on display, the better it’s likely to be.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But the above have consistently worked for me — and the more you follow them, the more attuned you become to the nuances therein. In short, travel to Italy often, wander lots and trust your instincts.