How to pick a restaurant in Italy? I’m going to explain today how to have the best Italian food experience.
By Thais Linguanotto
“First we eat, then we do everything else.” – M.F.K. Fisher
There’s one thing I learned since I moved to Italy: as weird as it may sound, Italian food doesn’t exist.
You can have your favorite Italian restaurantin New York, São Paulo, or Dubai. Some are fancy, others will feel as if you were eating somewhere close to the Colosseum – with their bottles of wine hanging on the walls and checkered table cloths. But if you come to Italy, you should probably forget about finding all the dishes you like in one place – or at least good versions of them.It’s all about regionalism, traditions,territory, and seasonality. There are differences not only among regions, butalso cities – sometimes even 50km apart from each other. That’s what makes tasting experiences so rich when traveling around the country. Traditions come from history and theItalian history as a unified nation is very recent, around 150 years. Therefore, there’s no secret: if you want authentic products, you must get what is localin that area. A few years ago, my sister came to visit me in Siena looking for authentic Fontina, a typical cheese from Valle d’Aosta, close to France and Switzerland. Naturally the only type she found was a commercial one in a big supermarket, probably not very different from the one she could have got in London. For each generic Fontina in Siena there were thousands of local artisanal Tuscan cheese types. And this is not a privilege of the famous Palio horse race town. Each region will provide you with unique, and at the same time, varied flavors, consistencies, scents and types of wines from every possible harvest. So with all that diverse set of options everywhere, how should you pick a restaurant during your next trip to Italy (and avoid tourist traps)?
Read the menu
If at the door of a restaurant you can read dishes like Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Rome), Penne al Pesto (Genova), Risotto alla Milanese (Milan), Caponata (Sicily) and Lasagne alla Bolognese (Bologna),all in the same menu list, they will hardly be good and authentic.
Avoid restaurants with very long menu lists (usually in English) at the door
An authentic place, where local freshproduce is used, will not be offering all possible “Italian dishes” you canthink of; those that do will, most likely, be cooking with frozen ingredients from the nearest supermarket. No, fresh ingredients are not available in natureall year long.
Ask the locals where they eat
I remember back in 2012 when, after a frustrating dinner in Rome, I decided to ask the friendly lady at a store if she could recommend me a place to eat: ‘somewhere simple and not touristy’. Her friend offered to take me to one he went to everyday. The guy walked 15 minutes to show me a tiny and hidden trattoria. I had a simple and delicious pasta, observing what people in the area did during lunch time on a workday. I’ll tell you a secret – they usually don’t eat in front of the Pantheon or Fontana di Trevi unless they are in a movie.
Side note: usually in these places you won’t find many English speakers. Try the image option of Google Translate to read the menu – it can be of great help!
You can use apps – with caution
When traveling we may try and rely on apps like TripAdvisor, Yelp, or even Google to choose where to have our next meal. The problem with those apps is that you’re probably going to (a) read the reviews of other tourists, and (b) read the reviews of people who don’t know how to evaluate food or a restaurant – personal taste doesn’t define if something is good or bad, structured criteria does. So in case you are a bit familiar with the language, try and change your phone language during that period. That will not only help you learn new words, but also read the locals’ reviews instead – they should know a bit more about Italian food than the average tourist. Another alternative, if you want to delve deeper in your foodie research experience, is to use some of the most famous guides’ apps, like Michelin. Besides the star rating system, they also have the Bib Gourmand list, for restaurants with good food and moderate prices at local standards. I hope these tips will help you live yournext Italian food experience to the fullest! They are not extensive, but they’ll hopefully help you take a more curious approach towards all the different flavors, history and nuances we may find when eating in the Bel Paese.