Thursday, October 08, 2015

Eating Our Way Through Italy: An Introduction to Italian Food

I take food on vacation seriously. Why go to an exotic locale only to eat things you could eat at home? I probably spent at least as much time looking up restaurant recommendations as I spent researching sightseeing. If we were going to have a finite number of meals in Italy, I did not want to waste them on mediocre food.

Of course, based on where we were when it was time to eat, or on time limitations, we couldn’t be particular about seeking out specific restaurants for every single meal. But we did our best to avoid tourist traps and find places the locals enjoy. We also got out of our comfort zone and tried some really unusual foods!


One piece of advice I got from Smitten Kitchen (where else do I get good food advice?!) was to use the Italian menu, even if an English menu is available. In her "Notes and Tips from Rome," she noted:
Like most cities, we usually had the best meals in the places out of the main squares and that didn’t boast menus in several languages (though we found that almost everyone spoke passable English, far more passable than our Italian!). Along these lines: If you feel that you know the names of most Italian dishes and major ingredients, I recommend using the Italian menus even when English ones are offered. I found the English ones to often have confusing translations (i.e. “potato rounds in bacon and broken tomatoes”) when the actual dish (“gnocchi all’amatriciana”) was something quite familiar and lovely.

This proved to be wise advice. A couple of times we *only* had an Italian menu and just made our way using my limited familiarity + Google Translate (which was sometimes laughable). But those were almost always our best meals. Even when the English was available, we had to compare it to the Italian since the translations were often rough.


My specific goals for eating in Italy included:
  • pasta all’amatriciana and pasta alla carbonara in Rome 
  • pasta alla Genovese in Naples 
  • Neapolitan pizza 
  • gelato as often as possible (more on that in a separate post!) 
  • lemon granita in Sorrento 
  • mozzarella di bufala in Naples/Sorrento

I am proud to say I accomplished every one—and had a whole host of other food adventures, some fabulous, some...not so much!

A traditional Italian dinner has four courses (five if you add dessert): 
  1. Antipasti - An appetizer, antipasto literally means "before pasta."
    Prosciutto e melone - this antipasto was on just about every menu

  2. Primi - The first course is always pasta, risotto, or soup of some kind.
    Penne Nella from Trattoria Nella in Firenze

  3. Secondi - The second course is always centered around a protein.
    Arista con patate (roast pork with potatoes) from Trattoria Nella

  4. Contorni - Side dishes, especially vegetables. Steve and I were actually kind of astounded at the lack of vegetables on our trip. Your main dish does not typically come with any; you have to order them separately. Often, Italians eat salad at the end of the meal rather than at the beginning as Americans usually do. The contorni section of the menu was often very sparse (and they *always* put radicchio in salads, and I hate radicchio!). But if you don't order one, you pretty much won't see any other vegetables at your table. 
    Misto di verdure alla griglia (mix of grilled vegetables) from La Tradizione

  5. Dolce - Desserts, literally "sweets."
    Biscotti e vin dolce (cookies and sweet wine--wine not pictured) from Il Latini
It's also common to finish the meal with a shot of espresso (NOT cappuccino...milk after tomatoes is traditionally thought to be bad for digestion!)

That said, Italians don't always eat all four courses; it's common to order just two of the courses. In just about every restaurant we tried, the portion sizes were *not* at all conducive to one person eating all four courses! In the interest of trying a wider variety of dishes, Steve and I typically would order an antipasto, a primo, a secondo, and a contorno and just share everything. This seemed to work out  well for the most part.

Bucatini alla Don Salvatore from La Tradizione

I’ll be talking about some of our very favorite meals in future posts, but as an introduction, I wanted to provide a one-stop list of places we ate and would (or would not) recommend.

  • La Gallina Bianca, Via Antonio Rosmini 9 - Our first lunch place (as I described yesterday) was OK, not anything special. 
  • Vecchia Roma, Via Ferruccio 12b/c- Fantastic traditional dishes; we loved the all'amatriciana and the coda alla vaccinara (pictured in yesterday's post).
  • Caffe di Porta Castello, Largo di Porta Castello 27-28 - Here we were overwhelmed at the panini options and asked the waitress what she'd recommend, which led to the discovery that we loved bresaola, a cured beef cold cut.
  • Flavio de Velovevodetto, Via di Monte Testaccio 97 - One of the most memorable experiences of Rome's offal dishes; I'll be writing a whole post about this one.
  • La Fonte Torrato, Piazza dei Crociferi 6 - We grabbed quick panini here on the go. Steve's caprese was just "eh" but my proscuitto e formaggio was fantastic; I was delighted when they toasted it unexpectedly.
  • Il Pastarito, Via IV Novembre 139 - Very unremarkable tourist spot. The restaurant we wanted to check out was inexplicably closed and this was a nearby alternative when we were tired and hungry. Steve really enjoyed his Greek salad (vegetables, as I said, had been notably lacking all week) but my carbonara wasn't great. Yummy tartufo for dessert though. 

Campania (greater Napoli area and the Sorrentine peninsula):
  • La Tradizione, Via Giuseppe Verdi 26, Portici - Our best restaurant experience. The food was good, but the overall experience was unforgettable--so much so, we went back a second time. Full post coming on this one.
  • Di Matteo, Via dei Tribunali 94, Napoli - Super cheap way to try a bunch of classic Neapolitan street food, but we didn't love any of it and the process of getting it was really chaotic and confusing.
  • Locanda del Cerriglio, Via del Cerriglio 3, Napoli - Another fabulous out-of-the-way spot that doesn't get a lot of tourist traffic. We loved it. Full post coming.
  • Il Ritrovo, Via Montepertuso 77, Positano - We popped in here during our hike on the Amalfi Coast and got a bunch of free treats to try, all of them delicious!
  • Covo Dei Saraceni (Via Regina Giovanna 5, Positano) - Very satisfying focaccia caprese, but after our hike anything would have tasted good I imagine. The gelato was also yummy. 

  • Ristorante Queen Victoria, Via Por Santa Maria 32 - Ugh. We popped in here for a quick lunch en route to our first museum and it was utterly disappointing, clearly a tourist trap. The pizza was a disgrace.
  • Tre Merli, Via dei Fossi 12 - Great take-out pizza on a night when we were exhausted and needed something we could take "home" with us to kick back. We polished off two pizzas ourselves!
  • La Cantinetta di Rignana, Via Rignana 11, Greve in Chianti - Oh. My. Goodness. The fresh pasta was incredible. And lots of other traditional Tuscan dishes to try, some amazing, some (I'm not gonna lie) gross. I'll write more about this one. 
  • Antica Osteria 1 Rosso, Borgo Ognissanti 1 - Great location for dining al fresco; the food wasn't our favorite but that may be because we were so stuffed from lunch at La Cantinetta di Rignana. My stomach wasn't ready for the rich food here.
  • La Pasta Fresca at Mercato Centrale - The options on the second floor food court at Mercato Centrale were completely overwhelming, but this proved to be a good choice, even if it felt weird to eat green beans and potatoes in my linguine.
  • Trattoria Nella, Via delle Terme 19r - A friend said their ravioli in walnut cream sauce was the best thing in Firenze ever, but it didn't sound as good as other stuff on the menu. Our experience here was satisfactory, not the best food but not the worst either. Service wasn't fantastic. 
  • I Due Fratellini, Via dei Cimatori 38R - Fun little lunch spot for panini, recommended in all the guidebooks but not nearly so busy as we expected.
  • Il Latini, Via dei Palchetti 6r - Utter chaos, but some delicious food. I'll write more about this one, too. 
As you can see...I was a little obsessed with Italian food :) And as a disclaimer, I am obviously very much NOT an expert on any of this, so if something I've said here is incorrect, please let me know! But we definitely had fun getting a taste of new cultures. Food was a big part of our trip, so I'll be posting more details about a few of the restaurants, as well as more on the classic cuisines of each region.

1 comment:

Danielle said...

You are like me! I also plan my trips around food. I will often pick out the places I want to go ahead of time or (even better) based on local recommendations. Love it!

Oh, and here's a link to that Netflix series I was talking about: