So I was cruising around YouTube on my TV, watching all sorts of Italian travel guides, trip videos, and recommendations. I stumbled upon one called ‘How not to eat in Italy’ and the title tickled me. My first response was, “Why would anyone want to not eat in Italy?” haha! But the subtitle was ‘My biggest mistakes as a tourist’. Interested to know if our experiences were similar, I pressed play.
The salient point of the video was presented immediately: “My biggest mistake was expecting to find all of Italy in all of Italy.” Bingo! This was the perfect description of my first trip.
It took one misstep after another to discover just exactly how regional Italy is. Coming from the highly homogenized United States, where you can expect every grocery store to have a nearly identical canned goods aisle and a produce department, every town to have a post office flying a flag out front and at least one good burger joint, it was stunning to discover how encapsulated Italian regions can be.
How not to eat in Italy. Best analogy? Don’t try to order grits at a restaurant in Boston. Even if they’re on the menu. (Which is highly unlikely.)
Food is distinctly regional in Italy. And although you may see bolognese on a menu in Rome or Naples, the odds are it’s not going to be that rich and delicious sauce you’ll find in its native Bologna. It’s not like America, where you can appease your craving for Tex-Mex in North Carolina, or find Maine lobster surf-n-turf at your favorite steakhouse. We mix it up. If you see it mixed up like that in Italy, it’s the influence of tourism, not the specialty of the house.
There’s a lot of pride in that regionality. If you take a moment to discover the specialities of your locale, you’ll find an astonishing degree of excellence. (My son told me it looked like Michelin stars are handed out like pez candies all over Italy. But there’s a reason so many restaurants there are highly rated… it’s the food!)
So do your homework. On the same YouTube video, the traveler’s Italian wife suggests a Google search in Italian, for genuine results. If you search for typical Roman food, the result is *popular* food in Rome. She recommends you search for “piatti tipici di roma”. I tried it, and agree wholeheartedly.
- Bucatini all’amatriciana.
- Rigatoni alla carbonara.
- Tonnarelli cacio e pepe.
- Carciofo alla giudia.
- Carciofo alla romana.
- Supplì al telefono.
- Fiori di zucca fritti.
- Crostini Neri.
- Crespelle alla Fiorentina.
- Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
- Trippa & Lampredotto.
- Baccalà alla fiorentina.
- La polenta.
- Bigoli in salsa.
- Bigoli con l’anitra.
- Risotto de gò.
- Risi e bisi.
- Scampi alla busèra.
Moral of the story: Do not look for all of Italy in all of Italy. You will find Roman in Rome, Venetian in Venice, Florentine in Florence, and Neapolitan in Naples. (You can do yourself a further favor by saying Roma, Venezia, Firenze, and Napoli – the actual names of the cities.)
An addendum: I had the same experience shopping. I’d decided to save my souvenir hunt for my last days which would be in Rome, so that I didn’t have to carry my treasures everywhere. You can imagine my disappointment when, even in that large metropolis, I was unable to find the Venetian lace and Amalfi pottery I had so admired. I should have gotten the limoncello in Sorrento, and the leather bag in Florence. Lesson learned.