Italians know how to choose amazing restaurants in Italy, but not abroad. Most of us judge restaurants as our experience dictates. Learn how to recognize a great place to eat in Italy and avoid the tourist traps, which may not be as obvious as you expect them to be.
Italians pride themselves on their cuisine. “It’s the best in the world!”, is commonly heard among them, even though many Italians admit to never having tasted anything else. What surprises me, however, is how difficult it is to find a good restaurant when you are in an area that is new to you, especially in touristy areas. Pride seems to disappear when tourists walk in.
So many Italians criticize the food in America after having spent a few days in one city. But they are comparing America’s touristy restaurants to Italy’s best, which tourists in Italy rarely find. On the other hand, Italians who have lived in America, have expressed opposing opinions to those who passed through briefly. “In America, a tourist can easily find a decent steak in any restaurant they happen to find. But, in Italy, you must know where to go or you risk being served a frozen pre-packaged meal.”, said a heart surgeon after a two-month stay in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was impressed by his comment, because I have been to Cincinnati and I cannot say it is the Mecca of Haute Cuisine.
“What do they put in the lettuce to make it taste so good.”, said a visitor who had eaten at restaurants throughout Italy that had been recommended by the locals .
“I don’t like the food here, I expected it to be better”, said my friend’s grandmother after having eaten at numerous touristy restaurants throughout Italy.
If you have never encountered this problem in Italy then either you have been lucky, you innately know how to choose or you have no idea of what good Italian food tastes like.
There are ways of ensuring you choose a good restaurant almost every time, for when you find a good one, you realize how good Italian food really is. I always say that my boyfriend has a sixth sense when it comes to choosing a place to eat, but I have learned that he looks for tell-tale signs, which never seem to fail him.
Judging the book by the cover can result in a waste of money, the same goes for restaurants. Not all gorgeous restaurants serve good food. In reality, many of the beautiful restaurants that line Italy’s most famous piazzas, serve frozen TV dinners. There is no chef, just a microwave oven. It is like eating at a 7Eleven, but at five-star-restaurant prices. Of course, the best restaurants are beautiful as well, but there are other signs you should look for, besides mere aesthetics.
Get off the main piazza, street or attraction: Find the narrowest street, follow it and eat at the most hidden restaurant you can find. Restaurants that you have to find with a GPS will not have the fortune of wanderers who drop in. Their business comes from word of mouth only. For this reason, they have to be good. But before you eat there, confirm the rest of these suggestions, just to make sure.
Before you walk in the door, look carefully.
Any of the following recommendations are completely trustworthy.
If you see them, walk right in and feel free to order with your eyes closed, for it will be superb: Michelin star, Gambero Rosso and Slow Food, in that order. We have had the most memorable meals at Michelin Star restaurants. Even a mere acknowledgement from Michelin will prove to be worthy. Sometimes we did not notice the recommendation until after we had already decided to eat there, which means that either my boyfriend truly does have a sixth sense or the other signs were clear. Please note that a recommendation from any other restaurant guide is not always honest. Many restaurants pay for their placement, therefore, you can only blindly trust the aforementioned three or look for the following signs to help you decide.
Look at the menu. Does it read like a book with multiple pages? If so, the food is most likely frozen.
You must keep in mind that if all the food a restaurant offers cannot possibly be consumed daily, then they freeze it, for they would never discard it. It is a good thing if the menu is limited. The less on the menu, the fresher the food and the better it will taste. It is a good thing if they have run out of something, for that means it was fresh, as every thing else most likely is.
* Look for the asterisk! *
In some cases it may be difficult to find. It may be hidden on the back page or crammed at the bottom. It should be next to any item on the menu which contains frozen food. While this may lead the foreigner to believe that a few frozen ingredients were used, but cooked when you ordered. Italians know that these meals are prepackaged frozen dinners which are microwaved and scooped onto a plate. You may be on a beautiful piazza at a restaurant with linen tablecloths and napkins. The waiter may be in an impressive uniform and the setting might just be perfection, but your meal is also sold in the frozen food section of the supermarket. The only difference is the price. This is not the Italian experience you dreamed about. Seek and ye shall find! You did not seek much if you settled for the main piazza. Now go seek!
Ask for a variation.
I often ask for tagliatelle instead of almost anything else. If there is another dish with tagliatelle, it should make no difference to the chef to change my penne al pesto for tagliatelle al pesto. If it is a frozen dinner, they cannot make any changes. Ask if there is cream in the Carbonara. Real carbonara should be made with fresh eggs, bacon (guanciale, to be percise), parmesan cheese and no cream. If you think the food may be frozen, just asking for a change in ingredient. That should make it clear.
It is almost impossible to find bad food in certain regions.
If you are driving around Italy, drive along the winding roads in the countryside and eat in any small village especially in Tuscany, Abruzzo, Umbria, Campagna and Sicilia. In reality, you can rarely go wrong in the countryside of any region in Italy, as long as it is not touristy. Most small villages, which receive few tourists, offer excellent dining experiences. If the town is well-known to tourists, eat before you enter it. One of the best restaurant experiences I have had in Italy was at Bocondivino, located just before driving into Montalpulciano, Tuscany. It has one Michelin Star. I had the venison with puree of chestnuts and Barolo-wine reduction topped with figs. Desert was a delightful lavender creme bruleé, which we followed with Jamaican Blue Mountain espresso, the world’s most expensive coffee, which was featured on their international espresso menu. Now I’m getting hungry.
Look for food which is in season and from the area.
Get pasta al pesto in Genova or anywhere in Liguria and pasta Bolognese in Bologna. Amatriciana or Carbonara is best in Rome and pizza is best in Naples. Seafood is tricky even on the seaside, so it gets even trickier inland but I will get more detailed further on. Every region has its specialty. Find out what it is and order it. If a menu has famous dishes from several regions such as pesto, lasagna, Bolognese and Cabonara, consider moving on. Sometimes, you will see a multi-regional selection but with the chefs particular variations. If they stray from the typical, you might have stumbled on to something good.
Look at what is being served to the diners present. Does it look appetizing?
Are the diners savoring each morsel or merely chucking it in? Does the pasta look dry or does it look delicate and delicious? Does the meat look overcooked or tender?
Who is eating at this restaurant?
The rich not only have more money but they also have more resources. They do not necessarily exclusively eat at expensive restaurants. If it is an elegant crowd at an inexpensive restaurant, that is also a good sign. However, an elegant restaurant full of casually dressed people or tourists is a clear warning.
False advertising does exist but certain phrases are usually true.
Pasta fresca (fresh pasta), fatto in casa (homemade), del giorno (du jour/ today’s specials). Although the dish of the day may be something they want to gt rid of, it usually is not. It is usually something that they acquired at a good price and will make until it runs out, which means it is usually fresh. A menu offering different types of lesser-known pasta is usually a good sign as well: maltagiati (badly cut pasta), mafalde, pappardelle, taglioline and trofie are but a few.
Is it a holiday?
You can basically forget about eating excellent food on certain holidays. Even top restaurants have a hard time maintaining their standards. If it is Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Ferragosto (August 15th) or any local holiday where everyone eats out, your dinner will suffer a fall in quality level. Seafood restaurants may run out of freshly caught fish and resort to their frozen stock. The kitchen may not have the manpower or extra time it needs to prepare your food in its usual manner. The staff may be stressed due to the excess of clientele. If it is an excellent restaurant, your food will probably be decent. If you require excellence, choose a restaurant that is accustomed to daily crowds, just make sure you reserve well in advance.
Handwritten menu or no menu at all.
While I find it extremely annoying to have to decipher someone’s elementary penmanship, I find it even more so to have a menu recited to me. I like to visualize the dish and a good written description will convince me more than a hairy guy named Ciro who mumbles off the menu in a dialect. However, even though you may want to demand a written menu or have him re-mumble your options a little slower, the absence of a menu or one that looks as if a chicken scratched it out is a good indication that you have fallen upon a good restaurant. I have often wondered what happens with deaf customers. Regardless, if they have no menu, the food is usually fresh and satisfying even if the service is not. Remember, you are in Italy, the service is basically nonexistent, so don’t expect it. The waiters earn a decent salary, so tips are not expected. Most people round up to the nearest euro or 5, depending on the amount of the bill. Regardless, if the waiter hates you, you will know. If he likes you, he may ask for your number.
Finding a good seafood restaurant can be difficult, even on the seaside.
Even the top seafood restaurants sometimes use frozen fish if they run scarce on their fresh stock. In these cases, tourists may be given the frozen fish in order to keep the fresh fish available for their returning customers. Seasides are usually tourist attractions, so quality fish may not even be available at some seaside restaurants. So how does one spot a good seafood restaurant? Well, this takes more than just mere signs. You could follow them all but only one will guarantee success: Recommendations from Michelin, GamberoRosso or Slow Food. The following tactics may help, but locating a good seafood restaurant will remain a question of luck:
- Ask the locals. They should be able to guide you to a decent place.
- Look for rare seafood items such as: lupini, tartufi di mare and ricci di mare. These are hard to come by, so if they have them, they are most likely fresh.
- Look for a fish tank and look at its stock. Order whatever is in it.
- Many seafood restaurants display their catch of the day. Look at the eyes of the fish. Are they cloudy? If so, move on. Fresh fish should have clear eyes and should have a mild sea scent not a fishy odor.
- Once you have chosen a place, you must make every attempt to be served their best offerings. Many seafood restaurants have a menu that they give to tourists and a vocal menu that they recite to Italians. The vocal menu will be in Italian and will not include prices, but will feature the freshest fish they have to offer. Learn enough Italian phrases to understand them and ask for prices so as not to be surprised nor scammed in the end.
Why can I not use these suggestions outside of Italy?
Italian food is only as good as its ingredients. An amazing chef may have great skills but if he does not have equally superb ingredients, his masterpieces will be lackluster. The ingredients used in Italian cuisine are based on what is grown or produced on the peninsula. The rich volcanic soil, extensive amount of sunlight and passion for maintaining high standards as well as the refusal to use genetically modified food, creates extremely flavorful ingredients. However, the same chef using sub-par ingredients will not be able to recreate his masterpiece.
Some of these principles are useful outside of Italy. We ate at an amazing restaurant in the Provence region of France. It had one Michelin Star and three choices per course. We blindly ordered two from each and were extremely delighted. Start practicing in Italy and eventually it will become second nature. However, c keep in mind that cuisines in other countries are not based on the same principles as Italian cuisine. In Italy, the ingredient is the star. In France, the chef is. Japanese cuisine is more ingredient based but Thai cuisine is more about the balance of flavors.
In the end, the more international culinary experiences you amass, the more knowledgeable you will become. Follow your instincts and like Andrew Zimmern says, “If it looks good, eat it!”
You should be aware of typical restaurant scams in Italy which are more than common in large cities and especially in Rome. Learn how to avoid scams and be prepared.
Please let me know of your dining experiences in Italy. Have you fallen into any traps or have you managed to pick a gem each time?