The search for the perfect trattoria
Tips for finding great restaurants in Italy
Avoid restaurants with touts trying to lure you in. In a country that loves its food like Italy, no decent restaurant has to resort to such carnival-barker tactics. Here are some helpful tips as you go about the business of choosing your daily eats:
- Look for places that are crowded. This is the simplest but most important rule. If people are staying away, there's a reason.
- Look for places full of locals, not visitors. If a trattoria seems to be entirely tourist-ridden, don't even bother. If the locals steer clear, there's usually a good reason. Look at that picture on the left. For years, that smiling, balding man has been standing on a sidewalk across the street and just down from the entrance to the Vatican Museums in Rome, waving a menu to attract tourists to his restaurant. The restaurant is usually crowded, but I've never seen an Italian in there—one look at the slop they're serving tells me why.
- Look in your guidebooks (and on this site). We travel writers go to great trouble and indigestion to sample a wide range of local restaurants in search of the best and most interesting places.
- Poke around to find your own undiscovered gem of an osteria. Read the restaurant reviews carefully and try a few that sound right up your gastronomic alley, but don't feel that you have to patronize only those joints. If a place looks good, with decent prices and tables packed with locals who seem to be having a good time, by all meals go in and sit down. the chances of you not getting a fantastic meal there are pretty slim.
- Get advice from your friends. I've eaten some of my best meals on the advice of fellow travelers who've already scoped out a city. Word of mouth is a great way to find memorable meals.
- Ask locals. Taxi drivers, the person from whom you buy postcards, and anybody with whom you strike up an acquaintance are all good people to ask for advice on where to eat, but hotel concierges sometimes are not. Some of them strike quid pro quo agreements with a nearby joint—it may indeed be a good restaurant, but there's no guarantee.
- Use the internet. Notice I put this advice after all the other ways to find a great eatery. That's because I'd trust locals, guidebooks, and your friends that went before you before I'd trust the advice on the internet (and yes, I realize that sounds a bit odd from a guy offering advice on the internet). Just keep in mind: take all random, crowdsourced advice with a grain of salt—heck, an entire shaker of salt. More people log on to complain than to proclaim satisfaction, skewing many aggregate reviews to the negative. Plus, the vast majority of crowdsourced reviews are done by amateurs. Nothing wrong with amateurs, except that, by definition, they don't really know what they're talking about. They might wax rhapsodic about a pizzeria because they happened to have a good pizza there, whereas a professional travel writer and food critic knows all that goes into the perfect Italian pizza, and what's more has sampled far more than he ever wanted to at a dozen or more pizzeria in this town along and so can tell you exactly which places actually do serve the best pizza. OK, that said, here are some useful crowdsourced restaurant sites: www.slowtrav.com, www.chowhound.com, www.GamberoRosso.it, www.tripadvisor.com, www.diningcity.com. There are also several thematic restaurants consortiums, including Locali Storici d'Italia (www.localistorici.it—all hisotric properties); the Unione Ristoranti del Buon Ricordo (www.buonricordo.com—order the "Buon Ricordo" house specialty at each and you get a commemorative hand-painted Vietri plate). There's also a fun ex-pat blog that focuses frequently on food in Italy: MsAdventuresinItaly.com.
- Be wary of restaurants in popular sightseeing areas. There are often perfectly fine restaurants, and even great little trattorie, right near a major sight. But the parts of town most frequented by visitors also inevitably draw the largest proportion of low-quality joints—those that pander to out-of-towners by serving bland, uninventive versions of the local cuisine (like that place I mentioned across from the Vatican).
- Case several places before choosing. Look inside to gauge the clientele and read the menus posted outside to compare prices and offerings.
- Look for the menus without English. The sign "We Speak English" should read "We fleece tourists." Good restaurants don't have to play on visitors' fears of the language to drum up business. This is far from a hard and fast rule—even in smallish towns with any tourism, nearly every restaurant will have copies of their menus in English (or a menu with everything translated, sometimes into four languages). However, often the place that advertises its multilingual menus is after passing tourist trade, not the locals. Restaurants with un-translated menus will be better, or at least more authentic, than a place with each dish translated. Although those menu translations may be helpful (and can save you from having to furtively consult your phrase book), they are not necessary. In most Italian restaurants these days, at least one person speaks a smidgen of English. If not, in a pinch you can set aside pride and decorum and make do with barnyard noises. Point to a dish, raise your eyebrows, and cluck like a chicken. The waiter will usually catch on and say something like, "No, No. Baa-aa-aa-aa." Now at least you know that one's lamb.
- Find the place with no sign, no menu. Tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants with no menu at all or one on a chalkboard will often treat you to the greatest and most authentic food you'll ever find. It'll just be you, eight tables, mamma in the kitchen, a passel of neighborhood regulars watching the soccer match on television, wine from the family estate, and heaping portions of hearty, home-cooked, utterly incredible local food.
- Italian dining norms
- Top 10 culinary experiences in Italy
- The Italian meal
- Restaurant types
- Tips for cutting dining costs
- Italian dining phrases and menu terms
- Cooking classes and courses in Italy
This material was last updated February 2011. All information was accurate at the time.
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