Friday, October 22, 2010

They're all good

A major reason we love the Italian culture is the food.
After traveling quite extensively in Italy, I rarely consult guidebooks for help on choosing restaurants. For one thing, many of our travels in Italy have been by bicycle and a guidebook that covered the small cities we stayed in would be far too heavy to carry on a bike.
  There is also a more important and better reason. Once, we were questioning the guy at the front desk of our hotel in Pavia about good places to eat. He described several places and finally said, "Well, really, they are all good."
 The wonder of Italy is that it's true. In many months of traveling and hundreds of meals, we can recall only one really bad meal. (It was in Venice. One does need to be careful in Venice. There are very few Italians actually living in there because it's so expensive and the restaurants don't depend on regular customers.)
Our method of finding good places to eat in Italy:
1. Avoid any restaurant that has big photos of the food outside, large and prominently displayed tourist menus in English, or has a person encouraging you to go in.
2. Walk a little ways from a popular tourist site. Unless you are inside a tourist site, such as a major museum, which might have a quite decent restaurant which can be a good place to have lunch or a snack so you can see more art without fainting.
3. Look at the general appearance of the place and if people already eating look happy.
4. For a special night out, ask someone local. People working at hotels are excellent sources of info.
5. Don't worry about it too much. With very few exceptions, they are good.
For lunch, search out bars. A bar in Italy is a place not just for drinks and coffee, but for wonderful sandwiches. You can check out a bar by walking in and looking at the sandwiches and desserts in the glass case. If they don't look delicious, just keep walking. In small towns, bars don't always have sandwiches prepared in advance so go to the nicest bar you see, whose vibe attracts you. Or go to the only bar. It will probably be just fine.
Some bars require you to pay for your food first and give the receipt to the person at the counter who gives you the food. Don't worry if your Italian isn't up to the challenge. Bars in Italy tend to be staffed by cheerful people that want to unite you with food and drink. Many bars have someone who will help the bewildered tourist and many will have you pay after you have your food so you can create less confusion. If you want to sit down and eat, rather than at the counter, you will be waited on and pay at the end. If you need to, you can go point out what you want to eat and then go back to your table. If you are a tourist with tired feet, having a good sit down isn't really that expensive. Indulge yourself. If you are your feet don't hurt, stand at the bar and enjoy going native.
Italians are excellent hosts and usually very adaptable. You want to share a pizza even though Italians never do that? You only want a first course and a salad but no second course? You want your salad first instead of at the end of the meal? You want a cappuccino after dinner instead of at breakfast? Most Italian restaurants will accommodate these deeply strange requests without any fuss or comment. Or, as my Italian tutor told me, commentary will occur only in the kitchen.
  There are a couple of points of etiquette that non-Italians may not be aware of.  Meals are served in courses. So if only one person in a large group orders an appetizer all the other diners will probably wait until that person is served and has eaten the appetizer. Secondly, almost all food in Italian kitchens is cooked to order by a small staff. (If any frozen ingredients are used in a dish, it must be indicated on the menu.) Give the kitchen a break and do as the Italians do: if you are in group, order the same thing or at least limit the number of different dishes you order.
   Buon appetito and don't forget the gelato!


Anonymous said...

Gaah! Boy oh boy, do you ever make me miss Italia!

- Denise (dlotter on ravelry/twitter)

evelien said...

Thanks for your mouthwatering photo's. Where's that ice cream shop? What you say is all true. Never a bad meal in Italy, if you avoid tourist traps. And looks are sometimes deceiving: We found a pizzeria (in Panzano in Chianti) that looked like a snackbar with a slot machine, but upstairs was a spacious and crowded dining area, with mouthwatering 'antipasti' buffet and the most crunchy, delicious pizza's you can imagine.
They also had a green grocer in that village where the staff wore white gloves to put your fruit and veg in a bag. The importance of good ingredients and to treat them with respect is the secret of the Italian kitchen.

Carolina said...

The gelateria in the photo is La Palma, near Piazza Novana. I actually preferred the gelato at nearby Giolitti but it wasn't nearly as photogenic. Both places are in many guidebooks.

Trudy said...

True - we never had a bad meal in Rome. We had at least two that would have fed three times the number of people present, and it was all way too delicious to leave. The restaurant also was right next to our rented apartment and looked completely uninspiring from the outside. Were we surprised when we went in on a rainy night and were treated so beautifully.Thanks for the delicious post. Too bad we can't teleport ourselves to this city for dinner!