What? A bad meal in Italy? Well, maybe impossible relative to a school cafeteria, but there is good, better, best when it comes to restaurants in Italy.
When I am hungry and in a new place in Italy. I use these guidelines to find a new restaurant that most often leaves me happy and ready to recommend the place to guests of my company, Homebase Abroad. Perhaps this will help you evaluate your options
1) Follow the cars. If you are in the countryside, pull over where you see cars. (This can be mis-leading, so keep your wits about you and be prepared to move on. Following the cars led me to La Fagurida in Lake Como. Similarly, keep going if you see tour buses.
2) Get out of your car. Besides encouraging a healthy appetite and giving you a chance to pause, appreciate and observe something beautiful, sublime and/or incongruous, you may find the meal you are looking for. Plus, getting out of your car is essential in a town. Follow signs for the ‘centro storico.’ Park and then walk. Make sure to look down side streets or to walk to the far side of a piazza. This may require more pluck and ambition on your part, but you will be rewarded with more opportunities. Years ago I stumbled upon Antico Dolo in Venice this way. Still one of the most impressionable meals I have had there. And the people and ambiance were as entertaining as the food was delicious.
Once you are on foot, don’t forget to follow your nose. And the sound of happy conversation. If the room is full of Italian talking, take it as a good sign.
3) Consider the menu. If the menu is in Italian figure out what you know you don’t want to eat and memorize those words.. (This is how I learned the meaning of ‘carpaccio’ when I was 12 and hungry and in Milan. My parents declined to order me an alternative dish and I learned.).
Learn the names of foods you like. Right now it is spring so look for ‘carciofi’ (artichokes) and ‘asparagi’ (you guessed it, asparagus). Extra tip; Look for asparagi selvatiche’ or wild asparagus on a menu. Thin, delicious stalks that grow under olive trees. Whenever you see a dish with this in it, order it.
Don’t be deterred if there is no menu. That is oftentimes a good sign. Engage your server and let them bring you what is fresh, what the cook decided to make, what they recommend. Travel is about trying new things, and if you have your list of foods you won’t eat, you can’t really go astray.
An endless menu? Not a good sign. Too many choices is a guarantee of food that is not as fresh and has not been selected or prepared with love and respect. Move on.
4) Count. Avoid dishes with more than three or four ingredients. I prefer ‘casareccia’ or home-cooking so I prefer restaurants that don’t overdue on the fussiness factor. Good Italian cooking does not combine more than three or four items in one dish. The Osteria di Crete presented me with a dish of Pici con gli agrumi. A heavenly combination of Pici (A type of fat spaghetti—a good word to memorize) with grapefruit and orange and black olives. Nothing more….and nothing more amazing to eat.
5) Check out the atmosphere. I look for a casual happy space where those dining seem to be known by those serving, A setting where there are enthusiastic greetings, kissing of multiple cheeks multiple times on arrival and departure, and sincere inquiries to ‘nonna’s’ health along with easy engagement with the children is usually a sign of an authentic (and tasty!) dining experience.
Antica Locanda al Sesto in Lucca is just this…friendly, thoughtful attention to each table. And you can arrive early and stay late at Donna Rosa in Positano, the father bringing you wine, Ericka emerging periodically from the kitchen to make sure you are happy and satisfied.
6) Look for a jumble of stickers on the door— In case you need reassuring. From Slow Food, Gambero Rosso or Osterie d’italia or 2Spaghi, this is generally a good indication of something worth trying.
Who wants to have a simply ‘good’ meal when you can have a ‘better’ or an even ‘best’ meal?