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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: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.

In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people. 

The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.

The Adriatic, on the other hand, is a mass destination for foreign sunbathers, very popular especially among German and Russian tourists. The east coast has Italy’s widest and flattest sandy beaches, which make it an ideal spot for families – but also very crowded. 

READ ALSO: Private lidos take up more than 40 percent of Italian beaches: report

The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia. 

Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.

More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.

One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices. 

To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.

While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.

The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.

Tyrrhenian waters are cleaner too: in 2021, its shores won more bandiera blu (Blue flag) awards for high water quality standards than Adriatic beaches.

READ ALSO: Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches

There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids. 

Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)

On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination. 

However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.

The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).

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The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure. 

There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.

Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.

READ ALSO: Life in Italy in 2022: 10 things to add to your bucket list

Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location. 

A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.

The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.

READ ALSO: Ten percent of the world’s best beaches are in Italy

Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome. 

It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days. 

The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria. 

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