5 Tips for Finding the Best Italian Restaurant
I’m in Italy, and I’m on a date. I didn’t expect to be on a date, but this guy conveniently arrived with my friend’s boyfriend to join my friend and me for drinks, and no one else seemed particularly surprised. And now, here he is, sitting before me, a lawyer 15 years my senior and grinning goofily at me.
His name is Giacomo, and he can’t speak much English. I can’t speak much Italian. My friend and her boyfriend sit to our right, beaming at me in anticipation. An awkward silence hangs in the air among the tinny music squawking on the radio. I need a drink.
Giacomo keeps sneaking his fork over to my cake like we are an old married couple, but I swat it away.
On the bright side, my friend’s boyfriend has taken us all to the best restaurant I have visited so far in Bologna. There is no name on the door and it sits huddled on a tiny side street. Inside, a few tables are cluttered together and adorned with checkered tablecloths, the chef wanders around the bar with a lopsided hat, and the waiter greets us all as if we are best friends.
There is no menu; instead, the waiter reels off the specials of the evening in his beautiful Sardinian dialect. I drink in the words as they flow through the air, and manage to pull myself together to order wine, ravioli stuffed with cheese and potato, and chocolate cake with strawberries. Each bite tastes lighter, fluffier, and more divine than the last. I am literally in love with my dinner.
Giacomo keeps sneaking his fork over to my cake like we are an old married couple, but I swat it away. There is no way I am sharing this cake with an accidental date, thank you very much. It is far too delicious to give away.
Each bite tastes lighter, fluffier, and more divine than the last. I am literally in love with my dinner.
I end the night full, happy and drunk on Sardinian liquor, singing Bohemian Rhapsody with the chef, hoping my squawking tones will put off Giacomo (they don’t). In the end, I have an unexpectedly great night, and an even greater dinner.
Want to find the most delicious food yourself? Take some tips from this experience–accidental date optional.
Ask the Locals
In Italy, networking is key. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is why I am sitting in a tiny restaurant I’ll probably never find again, tucked away in some invisible corner of Bologna, and it’s why Giacomo is here in the first place.
So, ask around. Ask your friends, acquaintances, colleagues–even people on the street. In Italy, food is taken extremely seriously, and no one will point you in the direction of a mediocre dinner. The locals know the best-kept secrets, and are your fastest ticket to a delicious, cheaper, and more authentic meal.
Wander the Side Streets
The most authentic food is never going to be in the tourist squares. Veer off the beaten track, explore the nooks and crannies of your chosen city, and you’ll inevitably stumble across some hidden culinary treasures.
When in Rome…
For the best food, stick to the specialties of the region. For Parma, gorge on ham and cheese. In Naples, devour the pizza. In Florence, eat seafood by the sea and gorge on steak.
One of the beauties of Italian food is its simplicity: very regional dishes, made with local, seasonal ingredients.
This particular restaurant in Bologna was owned by a Sardinian family, and served only Sardinian food–which I’d never tried before, and it was delicious. For an authentic Bolognese meal, it goes without saying that thick, meaty Bolognese sauce, called ragù, is the way to go – served with tagliatelle, not spaghetti!
Check the Menu (or Lack of)
The best food in Italy is often found in places where there isn’t even a menu–in small family places where they cook what they want on any given day. Our waiter reeled off the menu from the top of his head, and it was the best meal I’d had in a long time. Menus that aren’t written in English outside are also a good sign. There are usually English menus inside if you ask, or be brave and consult your phrase book.
If I see a queue of Italians outside a gelateria or pizza place, I know it’s a good sign. Again, if a restaurant is packed to the rafters–even if on the outside, it looks fairly shabby or nondescript–then you definitely need to go in and sample the goods yourself. Steer clear of deserted places, even if the décor is beautiful. From my experience, the best food often, bizarrely, seems to be in places that don’t look so nice from the outside. I have no idea why. Maybe the owners place their energy in the pasta instead of the painting–which is fine by me!
Food options in Italy are endless; the choice really is yours, and it’s actually quite difficult to find bad food. But for truly authentic experiences, step off the beaten track, explore the side streets, dust off your phrase book and ask the locals for suggestions. If you do, I can guarantee you’ll find food that you’ll daydream about for months afterwards. I’m still fantasizing about my chocolate cake!
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