I’m a Europhile, without question, but sadly I haven’t spent very much time in Italy. It only takes a few moments though to fall in love with true Italian cuisine, but much longer to discern what is best left alone. That’s why I’m thrilled Italian travel expert Jessica Spiegel shared her secrets in this post. Jessica is a Portland-based writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel experts. She’s a confirmed Italophile, author of BootsnAll’s Italy travel guide, and she has yet to meet a gelato flavor she didn’t like.
Italy is the stuff of a food-lover’s travel dreams, but that doesn’t mean every morsel you taste in the country will be something to write home about. In fact, it’s possible – easy, really – to eat crappy food in Italy. The unsuspecting traveler is particularly at risk for this pitfall because of what most of us think we know about Italian food already.
The bad news? Eating at Italian restaurants in most parts of the world that aren’t Italy leaves you ill-prepared for real Italian food. The good news? It’s really easy to learn a few simple rules to make sure you’re more apt to swoon over your meals in Italy than regret them.
Here, then, are some tips to help you avoid the bad food in Italy and find the great stuff.
Anywhere with a multi-language menu
It’s tempting to take the easy road when you don’t know the local language, falling into the waiting arms of a restaurant overlooking a famous piazza and proffering a menu in – look! – 12 languages. It’s tempting, yes – but the surest way to a bad meal in Italy. (If only those places with “tourist menus” would spend half as much time on what comes out of the kitchen as they do on translating the dishes…) The Italians stick to places where the menu is only in Italian, and so should you. Oh, and if there’s a guy out front waving a menu at you and imploring you to come into the restaurant? Wave, smile – but keep walking.
Where to go instead: As mentioned, look for restaurants where the menu is only in Italian. And don’t say you don’t speak the language, either – bring a good phrasebook and an appetite for travel adventures and you’ll be fine. In particular, keep an eye out for specials that change daily, as these tend to be seasonal dishes using what’s fresh and local.
Cappuccino after 11am
You’ve probably heard this bit of advice before, and it’s true. The prohibition stems from the fact that Italians think drinking milk after any meal will thoroughly mess with your digestion (Italians are nothing if not obsessed with digestion). So while a cappuccino in the morning is fine – because the cappuccino is, essentially, your breakfast – drinking one after lunch or dinner is a no-no. Of course, most Italians know that the rest of the world is less advanced when it comes to the digestive tract, so you can usually still order a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening without getting a sideways glance. Don’t be surprised, however, if a barista who “knows better” refuses your order. He’s just trying to save your small intestine.
What to get instead: Italians throw back their tiny coffees in one go, but they don’t order “espresso.” A simple shot is “un caffè?, per favore,” and the Italians aren’t shy about adding sugar. Also note that if you order your coffee and then sit at a table you’re likely to pay much more than if you just stayed at the bar to slam down the contents of the cup as soon as it hit the saucer.
Gelato may be the best-tasting souvenir in Italy, and it’s highly recommended that all travelers enjoy it twice a day – at least. Despite how basic the ingredients are, however, gelato can be wildly different from one gelateria to another – and in some cases, it can be so bad that it’s best to just throw it out and start over elsewhere. The biggest gelato sin is mass-produced gelato, often made from mixes, which is to be avoided at all costs – I don’t care how hot it is or how much the kids are whining. Mass-produced gelato doesn’t have what makes gelato truly exceptional – intense and rich flavors that are preservative-free. You don’t want to waste valuable calories that way.
What to get instead: You can spot mass-produced and otherwise sub-standard gelato from a mile away most of the time by looking at color (pistachio gelato sholud be pale and creamy green, not neon, and banana gelato should be cream-to-brown, not yellow, etc.), size (enormous piles of fluffy-looking gelato mean they’re not making it fresh every day), and language (the word “artigianale” usually indicates it’s made with natural ingredients).
No matter how much you love this creamy pasta dish back home, you won’t find it on the menu at any restaurant worth considering. It’s a dish Italians feed to children and pregnant women with tummyaches – not something any Italian would pay to have prepared in a restaurant. Likewise, “spaghetti and meatballs” is an Italian-American favorite, but in Italy the pasta and meat courses are served separately – putting big pieces of meat on top of pasta is unheard of.
What to get instead: Italians do eat meatballs (called “polpette”), but they’re served on their own as a second course after you’ve finished your pasta. And if you’re feeling a bit queasy (or you’ve got kids who are picky eaters), you can ask for “pasta in bianco” (white pasta) to get the Italian ancestor of fettuccine alfredo. Remember how obsessed with digestion the Italians are – just mention that you’re having digestion problems and you’ll get all kinds of sympathy.
Red wine in the Cinque Terre
Italian food isn’t like the menu at your local Italian restaurant – it’s regional, with specialties from opposite ends of the country sometimes feeling like they come from different countries altogether. This is why it’s so important to learn about what’s local and in season wherever you travel in Italy. In other words, you’ll find out why the wine to order in the Cinque Terre is white, not red (that’s what’s grown in the vineyards looming over each village). Being aware of what ingredients and dishes a region or city is famous for will steer you toward more memorable meals.
What to get instead: These days, you can get pizza all over Italy, but learning that it comes from Naples means you’ll find better pizza there than anywhere else. The same goes for steaks in Tuscany, artichokes in Rome, pesto in Liguria, and caponata in Sicily. Learn what’s local and fresh and you’ll know how to eat like a king.
What are your best Italian food secrets?