It is possible, it turns out, to find mediocre Italian food in Italy, but even without trying very hard you're mostly going to eat food that will still make you salivate a week after you get home. Only by walking a zillion miles a day did we avoid gaining twenty pounds. Here, in no particular order, are our top dining experiences in Italy:
andele recommended Piperno in Rome's Jewish Quarter (above). It was, hands down, our best meal in Italy, and also the most startlingly expensive ($90 for lunch for two!). I had a perfect espresso, a meltingly tender cuttlefish dish, a whole artichoke pounded flat and fried, and gelato with tiny wild strawberries. I was cranky and hungry after a long morning climbing over the Palatine, and left Piperno completely refreshed and energized. We still recommend it even after seeing this on the dessert menu:
Ōbikā in Rome is a mozzarella bar; you can see their tasting tray at the top of this post, with two strengths of buffalo mozzarella, a smoked mozzarella, a mozzarella ricotta, and a stracciatella, plus spinach and tomatoes and oven-baked olives. That's a plate of carpaccio on the side. Incredibly good lunch, though we were stuffed as full of mozzarella as a pair of Hot Pockets when we left; so good, in fact, that we went back for our last meal in Italy. There's one in NYC, for those of you who are eyeing that top picture enviously and don't want to fly to Europe.
I had one of my favorite dinners at a trattoria in Trastevere, near our hotel: sliced pears with clear honey and shaved parmesan for appetizer, an anchovy bruschetta I'm still yearning for (one little fish soaked in butter and laid across a crust of bread), and fish ravioli topped with cuttlefish and in-shell clams and mussels. (I really got into cuttlefish and anchovies there.)
Above, adfamiliares peruses the menu at Giggetto in Rome (note the Portico of Augusta in the background). This was our first meal in Italy; she was happier with it than I was. My spaghetti carbonara was very salty, and we were overcharged on the check. On the plus side, a 1st-century column sprouted from the sidewalk beside our table, and the fried zucchini blossoms were very tasty. Prior to frying, they look like this:
We were awed by the covered markets in Florence and Ravenna. So much bountiful fresh produce! A million kinds of cheese! Dried kiwis, limes, whole bananas (which taste just like banana bread)! The stalls go on and on, and it's easy to lose yourself among them. We bought a few things to take on the train to Ravenna (mozzarella, tomatoes, pane rustica, dried fruit, and Italian chocolate), which were extremely tasty, but tricky to eat without silverware or napkins.
Dan Curley and his family (friends of ours from Skidmore) took us to a great pizzeria in Florence, where I finally got my teeth on a Pizza Bismarck — like a normal pizza, but with a big ol' egg plopped in the middle. The photo above is from Zà Zà, where we got a very tasty meal our second night in Florence: addictive soft bread, the best tomato bruschetta I had in Italy, and a big skewer of grilled seafood with potatoes. (However, nobody in the restaurant knew how to make their special house coffee. *eyebrow*) We also loved the seafood at Lobs (short for lobster — no, really): tuna and salmon carpaccio and a fine slab of grilled salmon.
In Ravenna, they make a bread called piadina — a bit like pita, but softer and spongier. We stumbled across a place that makes piadina panini, which made for a very nice quick and simple lunch. You select yours from a stack of cold panini, all the flavors labeled with little flags, then wait while they grill them up quick and wrap them in napkins for takeaway. I know I'll continue to crave them for a looong time. For dinner, we ate both nights at the same restaurant, since our other three recommendations were closed: Le Gardela, where a kind and affable and grandfatherly waiter made us feel terribly welcome. Their capalletti ravenni (sombrero-shaped pasta in meat sauce) was delicately hearty, and prosciutto and melon made a perfect cooling appetizer.
We ate a lot of gelato, at a lot of gelaterias. My award for Best Gelateria goes to San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, for carefully selected fresh ingredients and shockingly intense fruit flavor. Best Single Flavor goes to mirtillo (bilberry) from Giolitti's near the Piazza Navona, and Best Flavor Combination is awarded to cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate), frutti de bosco (berries of the woods), and fior di panna ("flower of cream"), which I ate sitting by a fountain in the Corte Cavour in Ravenna.
I'll close with a couple of bonus food-related photos:
Adorable breakfast in bed at the Domus Tiberina in Trastevere. Most of the OJ we saw there was made from blood oranges; unusually, this OJ is not bright red.