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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities

Most international visitors to Italy's major cities are no doubt hoping to sample the country's famed culinary delights. But if you want to savor the best of real Italian cuisine you'll need to travel further afield, writes Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities
Photo: Gabriel BOUYS/AFP

Friends visiting Rome often ask me which are the best places to eat alla Romana – aka, the traditional Roman way – and each time I find myself short of suggestions.

Restaurant names do pop into my head but none serve the real thing any longer, not even those in the picturesque old Trastevere neighborhood. 

It’s sad to say but the trattoria and hostaria, the typical Roman-style taverns, have almost disappeared. Surviving ones have retained just the white and red checkered tablecloths, wooden benches and paper napkins of the past.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

The truth is, if you want to eat like a real Roman you should ditch the Eternal City and head towards the many quaint villages that surround the capital, blending the pleasures of day-tripping and nature walks with savoring traditional recipes. 

Food in big cities has lost the authenticity and flavor of tradition which survives in the countryside, where housewives still make pasta by hand and use locally grown veggies and fruit and fresh dairy products. Food miles don’t exist. 

Italians love their fuori porta (‘out of the city walls’) weekends when they get to relax and detox in pristine valleys and sleepy villages, picking small-scale eateries. According to a recent survey, 91 percent of Italians prefer restaurants serving organic dishes with locally sourced ingredients. 

These establishments are often referred to as agriturismi, a type of tavern-farm also offering simple accommodation that has become even more popular in times of Covid.

There are good reasons why so many Italians flee from towns for a bite of genuine cuisine. Eating in big cities, especially in the historical center of Rome, is no longer such a pleasant experience – except of course if you’re a Michelin-starred amateur. I’m not saying all city places offer poor-quality food, just that the majority has degraded. 

A restaurant in Rome’s Trastevere. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

When I go for a walk near the Pantheon or Piazza Navona I can’t stand seeing photos of dishes displayed behind restaurant windows to lure customers in. The images of big fat plates of spaghetti all’Amatriciana and carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichokes) described in English on huge cardboard signs and shiny plastic posters are meant to make passers-by drool.

Even worse, recently I’ve seen real dishes cooked early in the morning or the day before, displayed like gruesome art installations at the entrance. They look gluey and smell terrible, almost on the verge of rotting. My stomach churns in disgust each time. 

Also, most tourist menus in Rome feature images of iconic Italian dishes adapted to foreign tastes. The cotoletta alla Milanese is drawn or photographed served inside a panino (Italian sandwich) like a hamburger. And to please American tourist kids bored with sightseeing, there are now even non-Italian ice-cream flavors such as Oreo, Mars and Smarties. 

READ ALSO: How to spot good quality gelato in Italy – and how to suss out the fakes

The same thing goes for Florence. Last time I visited and dined outdoors at the foot of the Duomo cathedral, the waiter said they didn’t have a menu written in Italian but made great spaghetti bolognese – which, by the way, doesn’t exist (the correct name is tagliatelle al ragù and it’s not a Florentine staple). My eyebrows raised and I left.

Meanwhile in Venice, several bistros serve slices of pizza baked the day before and reheated, yet advertised on billboards as ‘the original Neapolitan pizza’. This, as the name suggests, is best made in Naples and the Campania region. 

City restaurants should really stop showcasing food as bait because it kills the soul of Italian cuisine – which is what foreigners love. 

But if you escape the crowds, get outside big cities and explore ‘small-scale Italy’ you’ll easily be able to get a taste of home cooking.  For example, I recently toured Ciociaria, a wild patch of land south of Rome where shepherds and outlaws used to be the sole inhabitants. 

It’s a foodie heaven. Family-run dairy farms make fresh ricotta and super-tasty pecorino sheeps’ cheese each morning, and they’ve opened small taverns serving handmade bucatini pasta with wild boar sauce and porcini mushrooms fried in breadcrumbs.

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There are rare delicious vegetables with weird names I’d never heard, while the cured meats are seasoned in cellars. Sausages hang from ceiling hooks to dry. Bread is made in centuries-old mills, and ancient vineyards dating back to pre-Roman times have been recovered. 

Eating high-quality Italiano means also savoring the ‘slow food’ philosophy and the culinary knowledge handed down through generations. 

There’s also another key issue. Prices in rural areas are also very cheap when compared to those of cities. And with the plus point that you get to avoid the usual tourist rip-offs like paying 600 euros for lunch in a chic Roman restaurant or 42 euros for three ice-cream cones.

The last time I climbed the Spanish Steps the street drink vendors at the top wanted 6 euros for a half-liter bottle of water – and it wasn’t even cold. 

Overcharging tourists never pays off. It only debases the greatness and reputation of Italian food.

Member comments

  1. The article is spot on, but the disappearance of osterie and trattorie goes beyond Rome. These little family owned and operated gems are one of the greatest culinary traditions of Italy. Throughout the north, particularly in Piedmont, the traditional cucina piedmontese is disappearing at an alarming rate. Covid surely didn’t help. One has to go away from the wine areas, or up in the mountains since many of the popular long-time trattorie are now selling fancy versions of dishes like agnolotti and vitello tonnato at crazy prices. So sad that tourism–something they hoped the UNESCO designation would stimulate–is killing tradition. The cuisine of the poor has become that of the wealthy.

  2. I agree with everything in the article. Tourism has a lot to answer for. We live in Umbria for half the year (the other half in Australia). We do miss the variety of cuisines we are accustomed to in Australia. But having said that, I totally agree…those places with horrible gelatinous photos of “piatti tipici” should NOT be patronised. But there ARE so many great places out of the big centres that serve up wonderful simple food…., and they are not really that hard to find. Even in Firenze, if one gets off the tourist drag there are some wonderful “local” little places, serving simple, excellent and low priced food…as we discovered staying before there before Natale 2021. Check out the San Felice area…. but don’t tell too many people!!

  3. I’ve worked as a tour guide in Europe for thirty years. One awful practice that goes on in some of those overly touristic restaurants in Italy is the microwaving of frozen packaged pasta that has been bought straight from the supermarket. I’ve seen it happen first hand in a restaurant in Piazza Navona when I nipped inside to have an spritz. Italian colleagues have mentioned the practice to me before. I would never eat in a place that has photos of all the food on the menu. Thankfully however, there are some real gems around the cities as well, where the food is amazing.

  4. Inevitably, the same is true on Lake Como. On the southern lake there are a plethora of restaurants with the same menu producing generally average quality food. The menus never change, internal decor is often poor and much is geared to short term profit from tourists. There are few trattorie in the surrounding area but these can be very rustic in terms of choice.

    Before I came to Italy some seven years ago there was an article in a national UK newspaper entitled ‘The myth of Food in Italy’. I did not believe this at the time but my experience has confirmed the opinion. If I want a decent Pizza I go to London.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

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I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

READ ALSO: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

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