Food Lover’s Guide to Eating in Italy, sensa Tourist Menu
I caught up with Lonely Planet author Alison Bing to talk about the new release of Food Lover’s Guide to the World
and we ended up talking about the interplay of expectations and authenticity when traveling hungry.
One of my most recent, and semi-traumatic, food experiences was while traveling through Italy last summer. I arrived in Venice – one of the most beautiful cities in the world, hands-down – expecting Italy to be one non-stop food fest of fail-proof deliciousness.
What I got, was the tourist menu.
In Florence, the food was much better, but even though we ate according to TripAdvisor and personal recommendations, like “I had the BEST meal of my LIFE here – you have to go!” – it was hit and miss. I drove away from Florence with the half-formed conviction that the quality of Italian food was directly proportional to the mood of the chef. If the chef knows you and likes you (we were lucky one night to go out with a couple of ‘friends of the chef’ at Iche Ce Ce), you will have the best food of your life. Otherwise, finding food better than Olive Garden seems to require tremendous luck.
It’s a treat to be able to ask an eater better traveled than I what her tricks are for finding the good stuff – so without further ado, here are the highlights of our conversation.
WF: When I was in Italy this summer, I had a terrible time avoiding the dreaded “Tourist Menu” and finding the real deal. What are your best tips for finding authentic food, whether you’re Venice (ie. Tourist-central), or Rome (nice blend of locals and tourists)?
AB: As soon as you can after you arrive, hit the local open-air food market to see what’s in season locally. Before you choose your first restaurant, check the menu to see how those prime market ingredients are featured – working with fresh local ingredients is the pride, joy and ultimate test of any Italian chef.
Next, look to the stars. No, not Michelin stars – the most memorable food you’ll eat in Italy will often be rustic regional fare, not French-approved fine dining. Italian law obliges restaurants to put an asterisk next to dishes on their menu that are surgelati, or made with frozen ingredients. This might not seem like a big deal, but many Italian classics are made with just three main ingredients. When one of those ingredients is frozen instead of fresh and locally sourced, it can change the flavor and texture of the entire dish. Your fresh, handmade tagliatelle (ribbon pasta) piled with velvety morels foraged that day from nearby woodlands may taste completely different from a similar dish served at that touristy joint down the street, where defrosted egg pasta with frozen morels yields watered-down flavor and rubbery texture.
When choosing between a dish you already know and an obscure specialty, go local and seasonal. This sounds obvious, but it isn’t always easy to resist the temptation of familiar Italian favorites. If you’re like me, you arrive in Italy already craving prosciutto e melone: thinly sliced, salty cured ham served with juicy sweet cantaloupe. Many restaurants in Italy offer prosciutto e melone as a menu crowd-pleaser, but the menu listing should be followed by the words “in stagione” (in season). Melons shipped from far away and kept in cold storage for months won’t deliver the same satisfaction as a sun-sweet, fresh-off-the-vine melon. So if there are no melons at the Rialto market in Venice, you’re probably better off ordering a different appetizer – try sopressata, or soft Venetian salami.
WF: I’d love to hear more about American Food versus their original counterparts. What are a few of the biggest surprises out there for people?
AB: Meatballs (polpette) are served by themselves, and they’re juicy enough that they don’t even need tomato sauce. The pork and beef is accented by garlic, pepper, salt, and optional breadcrumbs and local cheese, yielding a nuanced flavor best complemented by white wine instead of big red wines. At happy hours across Italy, pop a meatball with a glass of bubbly for Euro 2.50, and you might skip dinner in favor of another round.
If you think offal is awful, give Italy a chance to prove to you otherwise. During the Roman empire, Roman legions got the best cuts of meat, leaving much of the population to make do with the leftover bits, or “quinto quarto” or “fifth quarter.” From this ancient tradition of ingenious cucina povera (poor cooking) came Roman classics such as trippa alla Romana, tender tripe stewed in rich tomato sauce and mint. For an authenticity trippa trip, head to Rome’s ancient market district of Testaccio. The historic slaughterhouse closed in the ‘70s, but the cooks here keep the secrets of selecting, preparing and serving the “quinto quarto” at its finest.
I can attest to the marvels of Testaccio. My husband and I went on an Eating Italy Food Tour of the Testaccio area of Rome, and I felt like I learned what Italian food was supposed to taste like for the first time. Then, we took a cooking class with Chef Andrea (see Cooking Classes in Rome) and I learned the how’s – and the surprising why’s – behind cooking Italian. Enjoying Italy’s cuisine requires more knowledge than just sitting down to a plate of pasta. You have to know where to go, when to go, how to order, and what to order. There are specific, and intimidating, rules to all of those, like “never order a cappuccino after 11am.” Honestly, eating in Italy was a challenge.
The above photo was taken in a hole-in-the-wall Osteria in Venice that had great reviews, was family-owned, specialized in traditional Venetian fare, had no tourist menu – and all signs to the contrary, was disappointing.
The best piece of advice I got was from an expat-local in Tuscany: “If you’re in a new area and don’t know where to eat, find a place with white table cloths. Laundering is expensive, and white linens need changed after every seating, so the places with white table cloths are the ones willing to put out extra effort for the guest’s overall experience.”