Cookie and I recently spent two weeks touring Italy, specifically, Venice, Florence, Rome, Siena, Bologna, and the Cinque Terre.
We did not structure this as a culinary vacation, but rather a sightseeing trip where we tried to eat well. What follows is a non-chronological breakdown of what and how we ate.
Let's get this out of the way immediately. Pizza follows you through the major tourist centers of Italy. It exists at every turn in a variety of styles. We ate more of it than we expected to, but not nearly as much as its availablity would lead the average tourist to eat.
When we arrived in Venice on our first day, overwhelmingly exhausted from jet-lag and a 30-minute search for our hotel (which was a few hundred yards from where I stood with the map for 10 minutes saying "it should be RIGHT HERE!"), we needed some food. I didn't have the energy to look at a menu or talk to anyone. I just wanted to point and eat. So, my first meal in Italy was a slice of pizza from a tiny shop that had a couple ovens and a counter opened to a tiny alleyway. It was one of the better pizzas I tasted.
Mushroom, prosciutto, & mozzarella pizza in Venice
The main styles that we came into contact with were:
A) Large, round flat pies, most common in Venice (See above). These were crisp, light, and probably very familiar to New Yorkers.
B) A very thin and very crispy square-pan pizza, like we found in Siena. We tried the mushroom as well as the white pizza with potato. This was my 2nd favorite:
Pizzas on display in Siena
Pizza snack in Siena
C) The thick, bready, soft focaccia-style pizza which seemed to be most common in Florence. It is most commonly sold by weight and it is much more expensive than you expect it to be. I do not like this style of pizza at all and I only ate it once. Although I found it very attractive and the topping choices were vast and varied:
Pizza lunch in Florence--artichoke heart and sausage-mushroom-onion
D) My favorite style was what we found in Rome. Long, thin oval-shaped pies marked by a crisp crust around a tender dough. A counter-person cuts a cross-section rectangle from the oval, weighs it, re-heats if needed, and folds it over into a sandwich. (I didn't like the sandwich-style of service and found myself un-folding it). The best example of this by far, and among the best pizzas I've had anywhere was from Antico Forno Roscioli. This came from a recommendation from Bill/SFNM
, a recommendation that I was not going to pass up (Sorry Bill, we couldn't find Pizzarium) I had the standard mozzarella as well as the white pizza with potato:
Pizzas for sale at Antico Forno
In the same vein as pizza, but with a stronger pull for me were the farinata of Liguria. These chickpea-flour pancakes are street-food in the same was as pizza is, more satisfying to my palate, and often sold right beside pizza at at least half the price. They could be found plain, with vegetables like onion or artichoke cooked into them, or topped with a sauce like Genovese pesto or soft cheeses. I ate a lot of them and I found myself most attracted to the crisper texture and unadulterated chickpea flavor of the plain farinata. This is, in my mind, the perfect street food:
Plain farinata in Corniglia
A variety of farinata in Manarola
We did our best to adhere to an Italian-style dining style while eating meals. We generally found ourselves splitting one or two antipasti, ordering two pastas, and sharing one segundo. The weighting here is based on the way we discovered the quality of the meals to be weighted: The pastas were the best things about dining out---by far.
Tourist dining tip
: Avoid restaurants where the prices of the pastas are in-step with the prices of the segundi. I found that a trattoria that has more modestly priced pastas is serving smaller portions, more in-step with three-course dining. Higher priced pastas tended to mean American-style portions (for people who are only ordering pasta) and lower quality. Yes, you read this right--lower prices means higher quality.
Here are the highlights of pasta:
Fettucini con Pecorino e Guacinale, Trattoria Fabrizio, Trestavere, Rome
This was nearly a perfect plate of pasta. Creamy without being heavy. Toothsome, fresh noodles. Rich, salty, fatty guacinale playing perfectly with sweet caramelized onions.
Bucatini alla Amatriciana, Osteria Gigetto, Rome
I can't say enough good things about this dish. Perfectly spiced. A great example of this classic.
Not pictured is a paparadelle with a lamb and juniper ragu from Il Santo Bevatore in Florence. This restaurant felt a lot like the Lula of Florence--a chef using some creativity, a lot of locally sourced ingredients, and a lot of young tattooed staff members. The ragu was well balanced and the noodles were just right. The dish was punctuated perfectly with a long slice of the bark off of the roasted lamb laying on top--a very nice touch.
One of the better features of this restaurant was the charcuterie, cheese, and pickled veggie counter at the entrance. Behind this counter stands a tall man in front of hanging meats and surrounded by cheese and jars of pickled veggies. He has a hand-crank powered slicer and he's constantly slices plates of meat and cheese. We ate there two nights in a row because it was deliciuos and we found nothing else in Florence quite like it:
Il Santo Bevatore, Florence
The defining seafood experience for me in Italy was the anchovies of The Cinque Terre. The abundance of these little fish breeds a lot of creativity. Eating a dish of anchovy, you're directly connected to the place you're eating in. You can often see the water that they were harvested from while sitting at your table. The salting factories are only a town or two over (if they're salted). If they're cured in lemon, they were cured not long ago using the lemons from the trees that grow on the towns' hillsides. They are simply delicious. I ate them at nearly every meal in The Cinque Terre:
Here's a few examples of anchovy dishes:
Mixed anchovy plate
This one is from a restaurant called Gambero Rosso in the main piazza of Vernazza. It is an expensive place that has a perfect view of the water and the piazza. Pictured are (clockwise from the one o'clock position): fried, salted, stuffed and pan fried, and lemon-cured. This plate with some wine and bread makes a perfect lunch.
Another mixed anchovy plate
This one is from a much cheaper spot in Corniglia, overlooking the town parking lot. Lemon-cured, salted, and sauteed with onion.
There is a native Vernazzan dish called tegami
which is simple and delicious. It's a casserole of layered sliced potato, fresh anchovies, and sliced tomato. There is no complex sauce. Some simple oil and balsamic vinegar. It is excellent.
Tegami di Vernazza, Tratorria Sando, Vernazza
Another seafood ingredient that was novel for me, and quite delicious, were tiny shrimp or schie
, which I found often available in Venice:
Schie con polenta, Casin Dei Nobili, Campo San Barnaba, Italy
Schie on bread with bean puree from a cicchetti plate (Venetian bar snacks)
On the other end of the shrimp spectrum were large prawns like these beauties:
Prawns, Ristorante Miky, Monterosso
This restaurant serves top-notch seafood, has excellent service and attention to detail, and is rather expensive. I think it's a must if you're visiting the Cinque Terre. Their cold mixed seafood appetizer plate was one of the better dishes of the whole trip:
Mixed cold seafood, Ristorante Miky, Monterosso
Clockwise from top-left: Swordfish in tomato sauce, lemon anchovy, salted anchovy, octopus with olive and potato, tuna with red onion, (center) salmon tartare.
One final seafood note. A cheap and easy way to sample a ton of seafood is fritto misto di mare:
I had a very hard time with vegetable contorni in Italy. By the end of the trip we found ourselves ordering plates of chicory cooked in garlic, which agreed with the Italian-style of cooking vegetables long past crisp--asparagus was often ordered early in our trip and it was always awful.
The standout vegetable was the carciofi alla giudia
or "Jewish artichoke[/i] served in the Jewish ghetto in Rome. This is a nearly whole artichoke, fried, flattened, and fried again. It's crispy, soft and flavorful. Here it is with some fried zucchini blossoms, the best plate of veggies I had in Italy:
Carciofi alla Guidia at Osteria Gigetto, Rome
V. Dolci (including Gelati)
Sweets are everywhere. I don't know how restaurants sell dessert when each block contains at least one gelateria and one bakery.
We ate a lot of gelato and the quality runs the gamut. Gelaterias employ all kinds of efforts to draw in customers (fancy displays, shiny lights, bright colored piles of gelato) So here's how to find the good stuff:
Tourist Gelato Tip
: Look for the words produzione propria
, which essentially means that they make the gelato themselves. There are thousands of gelaterias, which means that a lot of it comes trucked in from factories. The places that make it themselves are turning out a product that is, by far, of a much higher quality. (This does not seem to apply in Rome, where even the places that we knew made it themselves did not display this notice).
Eating gelato daily for two weeks becomes a bit of a game to see if you can find the optimal combination. For me, I found I preferred chocolate as my base flavor to experiment off of. Generally, a nut-based companion flavor like hazelnut or pistachio worked best in the high-quality gelaterias. They're using real, fresh nuts and making it daily. I also enjoyed a "black-white" pairing like chocolate with fior di latte:
Chocolate and fior di latte gelato in Florence
There are two very good gelaterias across the road from each other along the Via Dei Calzaiuoli in Florence between the Duomo and the Uffizi. They're the biggest on the street and they both make their own. You can't miss them.
In Rome, there is one gelateria that has no sign outside saying "Gelateria", they do not display their gelato, you cannot taste their gelato, it costs twice as much as any other place, and the server is surly. This place is called San Crispino and they serve the best gelato I tasted on the trip:
Valrhona chocolate and pistachio gelato, San Crispino, Rome
Another key sweet item I tried were the ricciarelli of Siena, similar to a sweet almond paste macaroons. They're all over the place in Siena and they're quite good:
A semolina, cream, and chocolate ganache cake at Cafe Rivoire in Florence was so good that Cookie is hell-bent on reproducing it. It was excellent, but I preferred my glass of grappa:
Finally, in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, there is a jewish bakery where a surly old lady serves slices of a chocolate-ricotta filled cake. The place has no name and the cake is served by weight. They don't' look great, but tasted like heaven to me. If I had an apartment with a kitchen in Rome, I would have bough a whole one:
VI. Food Shopping
Since we moved around so much and never had a kitchen, we couldn't do much shopping. But we did explore a lot of markets and delis. If I had nothing but time, I'd love to rent an apartment in Bologna for a few months. They have the most extraordinary ratio of delis, cheese shops, and fresh pasta markets to people. Beyond the outdoor fish and vegetables markets, It seems like every block in Bologna is a cook's paradise.
One of the most extraordinary shops is A.F. Tamburini. They've got it all, including an excellent cafeteria. I bought a few Bolognese meats to keep us company on our train rides:
Mortadella and Salami Bolognese from A.F. Tamburini, Bologna
Addendum: More Tips
--Surprisingly, I found dining out and acting as a tourist to be a bit incongruous. We did not take a "food vacation" as we often do. Rather, we took an Italian vacation and tried to eat as well as possible. There are thousands of restaurants that surround the tourist centers of Italy and we found, not surprisingly, that the further we moved away from the teeming crowds, the better and more interesting the food became.
--Our food instinct taught is to avoid restaurants that advertised things that would attract non-Italians: multiple languages, "no cover charge" (since you can stay as long as you like in a restaurant a coperto
is commonplace, and shiny photographs of every dish.
--Our instinct also taught us to look for things like this:
...chalkboard menus that have no English and show exaclty what's good today.
--In Florence and Rome we learned to cross the river to the neighborhoods where regular people actually live and eat, away from the major sights.
--Order the house wine. It's a gamble that pays off. It's usually local. It's always dirt cheap and most of the time it's very good and works very well with the cuisine. I drank liters of house wine, red and white, and I can think of only one occassion where it was not a good, drinkable wine.
--I also learned that throwing yourself into local customs makes the whole meal more enjoyable. A campari before dinner, house wine and fizzy water with a three course meal, and a glass of grappa afterwards makes an immensely enjoyable evening. You often see tourists who are trying to force the experience to fit into their expectations of a meal. I distinctly remember the American diner who asked the waiter about the vintage and source of the house wine, which bought him an odd response. Learn the local customs, they are meaningful and enjoyable.
This really scratches only the top of the pile of gelato. Two weeks in Italy means 28 meals (not including breakfast which is really not much to speak of) along with snacking, sweets, coffee, and drinks nearly every day. This post could go on for days. I hope you enjoyed it. We really enjoyed ourselves.
Here's a link to the full food photo set.
I'm hoping to follow this up with a few more concrete recommendations. Names, addresses, etc.