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Mar 28, 2010 03:43 PM

Italy: It's More Than Just Rome, Florence and Venice...

I cannot resist posting this, having travelled heavily in Italy for over 20 years and posting-frequently-on Chowhound for over ten: this is an incredible country for food. And culture. And beauty. And history. Why do so many people consistently, year after year, post after post, go to the same cities?

I rarely read about Bellagio, Bolzano or Capri. Or Soave, Trieste or Asolo. A rice mill south of Verona, a 2000 year old Roman furnace which has a Michelin star 90 km northwest of Genoa, Alban truffles in October-I post this hoping that those who read it will realize there are absolute treasures in Italy which are worth the adventure of finding.

They may involve a bit of a drive...from Rome, Florence or Venice. Of course the AutoGrill has some seriously good paninis especially with the Calabrian hot peppers they sell. And, Calabria? Well worth many threads on it's own.

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  1. Many of the posters here are Americans or others who have never been to Italy and only have a short time to visit the country. As such, they tend to go to the main tourist spots - Rome, Venice and Florence. A recent article in the NY Times about seeing "untouristed" Italy, recommended going to Tuscany in the winter! Thats how ingrained is the idea that Italy consists of 3 cities and one rustic region - Tuscany.

    My wife and I go to Italy for the food and so I agree with you. For food, Piemonte and the Langhe is our favorite area and we make a point to go there every year. Certainly for truffles also for the lavish style of eating, the agnolotti del plin, the Barolo wines...

    Last autumn was a trip starting in Trieste and up into Friuli-Venezia-Giuila (we drove right by Venice) down to Emilia-Romagna and then across to Liguria. Drove up to the foodie town of Cormons where we ate at Al Cacciatore della Subida. I recall as we drove to the coast we stopped at little gorgeous medieval villages such as Compiano and had the entire town to ourself, (This was in July) Also stopped to eat delicious Ligurian food at Taverna del Gallo Nero in Varese Ligure. Agian, the town to ourselves.

    Next week we're going to Florence. We've never been there and my wife's parents want to go so its a family trip. I've researched food options and, I expect to be dissapointed. We are driving south too to Northern Umbria though, where we can do a bit more of the type of travelling that we usually enjoy...

    4 Replies
    1. re: r.vacapinta

      Sostanza is the oldest trattoria in Florence and also has superb bisteca along with a great deal of character. You must reserve. "Northern Umbria," eh? I wrote this a number of years ago about a restaurant north of Perugia that was incredible. It still is and still has a Michelin star: Il Postale is worth the drive. I wrote this three and a half years ago and it, too, is still there outside of Rimini , Il Puraza: If you find yourself anywhere near Panzano which is about 45 minutes south of Florence give serious consideration to Vescovino. Superb, authentic bisteca. Sostanza and Vescovino are among the very, very few places that use Chianina (sp?) beef. The owner of Vescovino also has an outsstanding and fairly priced enoteca in Panzao called Baldi. If you go ask to see his cellar. Unbelievable what he has done there. Two thirds the price of Florence.

      Thanks for your recommendations. Much appreciated.

      1. re: Joe H

        Joe, I am indeed planning to lunch at Il Postale in June on my way driving from Cesena (attending a conference in nearby Bertinoro) to Rome. And Il Puraza sounds like another destination that I should visit (googled and found it is on the SS72 leading to San Marino, where I plan to visit). Actually there are a lot of interesting restaurants in that part of Italy. Osteria la Sangiovesa is another one that I want to visit and Il Piastrino, with a new Michelin star.

        my family will vacation in Chianti (Radda) for 2 weeks and vescovino is definitely on our radar. And when I research for restaurants in the region, I am quite excited as I love pork and steaks. I plan to stay in Bagno di Ramagno for one night on our way from Tuscany to Romagno, but am struggling to decide between Paolo Teverini and Locanda al Gambero Rosso for dinner. I wonder if anyone might dined there and can offer their opinion. My criteria is what I would miss out if not eating there. Gambero Rosso is more unique but I am not a pasta person, at least not into the texture part of the pasta, and Gambero Rosso sounds very carb-centric. On the other hand, I worry that Teverini is just one of many Michelin one star restaurants without true characters.

        1. re: Joe H

          Thanks! As it happens, we are driving south out of Florence, through the Chianti and Panzano, over to Arezzo and then down through Perugia. So, I'll look both of these up. Our schedule pretty much had us stopping for lunch in Panzano.

          Sostanza in Florence was already on my shortlist but an extra recommendation is great!

          1. re: Joe H

            I am one of the guilty Rome posters, but since we will be arriving on our 25th anniversary for a 4 day stay in Rome, I want to make sure the dinner is all that we hope it would be.....

            But following Rome, we will be renting a villa in the country for 7 days in a town called Radicondoli, which is west of Siena. Any suggestions in that area?


        2. If I had the good fortune (and finances) to visit Italy for 20+ years, I would travel to more locations than the typical tourist picks. Unfortunately, I'm not as lucky as you! Thus Florence & Venice were our picks; the former because the daughter is studying there this semester and the latter because I wanted to share one of the most romantic cities I've ever encountered w/him. It was Mr OCAnn's first visit to Italy, my second. And I doubt that we'll return to Italy again, only because there's so much else to see. But I hope you'll continue to share your experiences, thoughts and advice; if I don't return, I can live vicariously thru you and the others. =)

          1 Reply
          1. re: OCAnn

            Thanks, OCAnn. I've travelled there for business for much of this time basing myself in Soave (a walled city between Vicenza and Verona) or Bologna. I've also driven through Bolzano a number of times having travelled from Austria down into Verona. Industry events have led me to Genoa, Rome, Rimini and elsewhere. All of this is because I've rewarded myself with meals for nights away from home, days off of an airplane when I might be up for 30 hours or more without sleep. When I'm able to return with my wife it is, indeed, special. But a lot of what I've seen are places that I want to return to. Without an appointment or meeting the next day. Fortunately, we've been able.

            I originally made this post because there were five or six posts in a row about Rome and I just shook my head and thought there is more to Italy than just Rome.

            It's just that when I think of some of the most special places I've ever been I'll ask the question "how often does an American have dinner here?" For several of them (i.e. Schwarzwaldstube in Germany, La Fornace di Barbiblu north of Genoa, La Puraza the "crab house" outside of Rimini...) the answer is almost never.

          2. In addition to the Rome-Florence-Venice trio, I have had the good fortune to visit Cremona, Vicenza, Parma, Cividale de Friuli, Asti, Alba, Lucca and a number of the other lesser known, smaller cities & towns in Italy. There is certainly something to be gained by getting off the well-worn tourist trail. Even larger cities like Turin and Bologna seem to get by-passed by many travelers.

            Almost all these cities have enough sights and attractions to interest a visitor for at least a couple of days. The restaurants are less crowded and the hotels are less expensive.

            1. After a recent trip to Naples & Campania, I'm a convert to the south. My on-the-ground impressions of Naples were utterly different than all of the hype. I ate better (& cheaper) in Naples than anywhere else in the country.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Hungry Celeste


                With regard to your question about Bagno di Romagna, we've been to both Paolo Teverini and Locanda Gambero Rosso and very much looked forward to going to both of them. We would return to neither. Neither is worth a detour.

                Teverini is soulless. A room (in a hotel) that is particularly unattractive. Staff that would prefer to be elsewhere. A mediocre wine list. Someone who doesn't seem content with either regional food or seasonal food. Cooking was okay, but nothing special. Grossly overpriced, both the food and the wine.

                We were really looking forward to going to Locanda al Gambero Rosso. Typically" three gamberi" (in the Gambero Rosso guida) is our kind of place, more often than not. In this case not. Below is what I wrote at the time. Hope this helps.

                It felt contrived, much to formulaic, too much like a stage set of a trattoria, perhaps feeling a little full of themselves because of all the publicity. The Saragoni family couldn’t have been nicer; in fact, perhaps a little too nice. How many times during a meal do you want to be interrupted to be asked if all is okay? Once, perhaps twice. Giuliana’s husband who hovers about the dining room, moving constantly from table to table… asked us five times. Giuliana, coming out of the kitchen, asked us twice, as did her daughter. Why? Insecurity? Who knows but what an annoyance. So is the fact that one of the sommelier/waiters insisted on filling up the glasses as soon as we took a sip of wine. That was part of the hurried pace of the meal. Finish one dish and a minute later the next one appears. A number of tables turned over during the evening… not ours, because we refuse to be rushed (although we couldn’t control the speed of the service), but it was clear for a number of other tables. The trattoria is off the main square in a charming little town, San Piero in Bagno (near Bagno di Romagna). It is a pleasant place and from all appearances it was going to be a meal on par with Da Amerigo. What a disappointment, particularly with the food. The menu had all the classic dishes from the area… from basotti to manfrigoli, from trippa in bianco to tortelli di patate. The wine list was fine, almost all from Emilia Romagna, but some good choices nonetheless. The skill in the food preparation was lacking as was the quality of some of the ingredients. The tortelli stuffed with potatoes had very good flavor, but the pasta was much too thick, something which should never happen in a trattoria which takes itself seriously. The spinach flan, actually a larger version of ravioli nudi, was heavy and overly sauced. My wife’s piccione was dry and grey (very unappealing). When I saw on the menu agnello in umido, I thought how fortunate I’d be to have a dish you seldom see on a restaurant menu. The agnello was lacking in taste and was mostly fat. I ordered semifreddo of melone. The semifreddo was delicious, but it was plated with what looked to be a puddle of a bad version of crème anglaise and a puddle of chocolate sauce. Crème anglaise and chocolate sauce with semifeddo of melone? Where did that come from? I found out when I decided to order another dessert… lattaiolo. The lattaiolo was absolutely leaden and guess what, was plated exactly the same way as the semifreddo, with the crème anglaise and chocolate suace. We paid the check. Giuliana’s daughter then insisted that we go back to the kitchen to say goodbye to her mother. We did, graciously, although we asked ourselves why it was necessary. We wish them well, but we won’t be back.

                1. re: allende

                  Sounds like they got in out of our depth . thats really too bad - great report, though.

                  1. re: allende

                    allende, thanks a lot. your comments are extremely helpful. Seems that Teverini is one of those old establishments that is becoming dull, and Gambero Rosso, on the other end, is adjusting to its new fame and a flow of out of towners. I think that I would still give the latter a try. I will drive pass the town anyway, and with two young children, a fast service and more attention is actually good. Teverini also sounds kids friendly when I inquired about their hotel.

                    On a side note, according to its new flashy website, Il Postale moved to a new location, in a fancy hotel closer to Perugia, and raised its price significantly, not a bargain any more, two tasting menu at 80 and 90 euro each, without wine, definitely at the high end in its category. A a la carte 4 course meal is no less than 80 either. Seems that Bistarilli also oversees the second restaurant of the same hotel, which offers less expensive alternative.

                2. Hear, hear. I ate in southern Calabria a couple of the best meals I've had in all of Italy. And how about Norcia? Posters rarely mention the home of norcinerie.

                  I understand why someone who will only make one trip to Italy would want to see all the most famous sights, but if one is truly coming to Italy "for the food" surely there are better places to go than Rome (or at least in addition to Rome).

                  Perhaps the way to turn this forum into something more than a sounding board for Rome, Florence and Venice dinner plans is for those of us who make it outside of these cities to proactively report our experiences. How else are those who don't know about Italy's lesser-known gems going to find out?

                  19 Replies
                  1. re: sarasophia

                    One big reason for people coming to this board (I guess 99% are foodies) for restaurant recommendation in Rome, Florence and Venice is that the restaurant scenes of big cities are more dynamic and visitors are overwhelmed by the shear number of restaurants to choose from. Outside those big cities, having a red book is probably sufficient to find a good place to eat.

                    I think that a better way to steer those who want advices in big threes is to establish a member review on this board, therefore no need for everyone to start a thread of their own.

                    1. re: kyeblue

                      Regarding your last point, which I think is recommending starting review threads of particular restaurants, that would be admirable but I think we may be stuck in sort of a chat like general query and then trip report mode. If people would take the time to set up separate threads for each of the restaurants they visit, and others would add their reports to those threads it might be more focussed but different. Unfortunately our search function is poor and for some reason returns a lot of irrelevant information.

                      I agree that the redbook is adequate outside Rome but unless you are devoted to collecting Michelin stars or have a French orientation, you will eat more interestingly if you also check out the Slowfood Osterie guide, italian online or print sources or even discussion boards like this. IMO Michelin is good at finding the bourgeois business restaurants in the towns, but they just do not have the devotion to identifying the best of the highly local italian cuisine or the agriturismos and other countryside places where the local cuisine is served..

                      1. re: jen kalb

                        The format of reviewing on slowtrav was not bad, and guess not too hard to set up.


                        And an important function lacking on this board (and available on the other board) is personal message.

                        Speaking of the red book, I agree that its coverage is biased towards the up end (only very recently I am fortunate enough to start collecting its stars), and all of us have some strong disagreement with the book over a few restaurants. But it is still the ultimate guide and I found overall its recommendation are very consistent. It is no coincidence that the very critical Maureen B Fant's favorite list of rome is more concordant with the red book than the other guides. And most of the highly recommended places by members on this or other boards, for example, Cibreino, more than often can be found in the red book.

                        It is also very unfortunate that the slowfood do not always publish their restaurant guide in English or no longer make it available on their website. And the same is true with the touring club guides.

                        1. re: kyeblue

                          rightly or wrongly, the folks who built this board saw it mainly as a discussion site, and did not mind the same issue coming up over and over again. We now have the ability to post reviews of individual restaurants which go up on the Restaurants and Bars tab and link in here on the Boards in the US. Maybe we ought to push to have this feature expanded to Europe.

                          If you look you can find the regional TCI books in English. They do have a lot of info about the food but relatively few restaurant recommendations and they tend to be very conventional (more like the Michelin or say the Blue Guide in terms of purpose being reliable places if you are touring).I didnt find any use foodwise with these guides on my recent trips to Campania and Emilia though they were helpful in other ways.

                          I think the restaurant recommendations for Slowfood are still on the website, but this feature is currently more difficult to access - I believe you may now need to log in. I use the italian site - the link is still there. along with a changing sampling of recommendations each week.
                          As for the books, the Osterie Guide seems to not be currently available in English, but we worked off the Italian language guide for years before the English guide was available, It was not impossible to decipher and in fact I still consult my 2004 to pick up choices no longer listed..

                          mfant has stated (sorry I dont put it so well) that her "favorites" tend to be high end, because she will go out mainly on special occasions and can cook the standard local specialties as well or better than the local trattorias. The Roman restaurants that many of us love because the food is unique and we cant get it at home, the italian hospitality and restaurant culture that are unattainable here at reasonable prices are of less interest to her as a price-conscious local. consumer. with very high standards Also, a Roman local may be less concerned than I might be with the "authenticity" of the dining (whether Roman or Italian) because they frankly do not want to keep eating the same old thing all the time - Since Italy is intensely nationalistic and conservative foodwise, internation,al french or exotic touches may not be unwelcome in the same way they might be for foreign travelers who want to experience "the real Italy". Ive thought that maybe at some point I will splash out on La Pergola , Convivio, Il Pagliacco, etc. - but because IMO the Italians greatest strengths are not in the complicated international cuisine , I would be more likely to explore in this bracket in France, elsewhere in Europe or NY than in Italy. We have had some relatively disappointing experiences over the years going higher end (not to the top places, admittedly) based on Michelin and Gault Millau in Italy, and have learned that fancier sauces, table settings and service do not necessarily make a better meal they may in fact make for a less satisfying meal..

                          1. re: jen kalb

                            It is definitely useful for the restaurant review expanded to europe. It seems that a curator need to add the restaurant before one can start to review. The list feature looks interesting too, especially if it can take import or export to google map. I use google map to keep record of my research, which is useful paired with iphone3G and google earth when traveling.

                            TCI guides for most regions are available but Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna are gone. I have its food guide 2002 edition, a lot of advertisement, not many restaurants and most listed in Michelin. Given that a used copy of 2007 edition of Osterie d'Italia asks for $200+ on Amazon, I don't understand why an updated english version is not available, or why it cannot be put into a more international format like Michelin guide to begin with.

                            1. re: kyeblue

                              You are French, are you not? It is unlikely that Chowhound, an American Web site, and SlowFood, an Italian organization, are going to revise their editorial policies to suit your preferences.

                              You seem very attached to the Guide Michelin, yet in another thread you inquired about inexpensive trattorie. While I have not used it myself, I have seen French tourists in such places who had consulted Guide du routard to find them.

                              Incidentally, your wife's worry about "heavy italy style dinner that she simply cannot refuse in a sit-down restaurant" may be unfounded. Many pasta sauces are light and vegetable-based, and very few meat dishes come with sauces. It is not necessary to order the entire Italian menu from antipasto to dolce, and many dishes can be ordered "uno in due," to be shared by two people.

                              1. re: zerlina


                                1. i don't think that prejudice against any nationality or any individual should have its place on this board.

                                2, you remarks completely missed the point of the discussion. The original poster is a bit "annoyed" by the constant requests on the three cities on this board. My response has two fold. First, it is more difficult to navigate in the big cities with too many choices, while the choices are limited and often easy to make in smaller cities or rural places. Second, I suggest that restaurant reviews on Roma/Florence/Venice might serve a lot of people better. And such kind of reader review system is as american or anglo-saxon as timeout, tripadvisor, fodors, etc, etc, etc, whose originality might be traced to amazon. But I also think that Jen has her point that the purpose of this board is to serve people who wants a discussion after reading through the endless reviews.

                                1. re: kyeblue

                                  I am not "annoyed." Rather, I am disappointed that so many seem to focus on repeating the exact same experiences over and over often at the expense of unique experiences available elsewhere. I started this thread because there were six separate consecutive posts about Rome all asking essentially the same questions. There are numerous restaurants in Rome (and Florence and Venice) where I feel like I'm in an American neighborhood restaurant. However, beyond this there are simply experiences available elsewhere that are not available in the three destinations mentioned above. I totally understand the image that Rome, Florence and Venice have in America and the desire to visit them first. But for those returning to Italy I am merely suggesting trying someplace else, a Cortina or Verona or San Remo, an Uliassi or Aldo Moro in Montagnana, opera in the Verona amphitheatre or a trek to San Marino. My wife and I go to Venice almost every year but we only stay tw or three nights now. We probably love Venice more than anyplace else on earth. Having said this there is so much more to discover or return to at least once. Or to add to a stop in Venice. This year we'll be in Bolzano, Cortina, Garmisch, Austria and Munich. For the first three there is almost nothing on here. Yet I wonder how many know that the towns are among the most incredibly beautiful places on earth, all with nearby extraordinary restaurants several of which I linked in another thread.

                                  Perhaps an additional perspective is this: Florence and Bologna are only 60 or so km apart but they might as well be in totally different worlds. You will not find an Il Latini in Bologna where half of the people in the restaurant will be American or English. I am suggesting that Bologna offers a different kind of experience than Florence. Perhaps not a better one, rather what may be a more uniquely Italian one. Regardless it is just as wonderful to discover and share.

                                  1. re: Joe H

                                    Joe, what you have said is so true. I think people don't realize how easy it is to get around in the Italian countryside. I have seen comments suggesting that Italians only speak English in the major cities. but this is absolutely untrue. Italians will go out of their way to assist you. Also known for its fine restaurant, we have tried to stay at the Villa Madruzzo above Trento for 2 years now, but it is always full. This February they suggested a nearby bed and breakfast. However, the manager thought we might have trouble finding it, so he led us there with his own car. The B&B was also a winery that exports Teroldego Rotaliano DOC red wine to Lodi, CA , which is somewhat close to my home. Being something of a wine hound, when I got home I found I had a bottle of Teroldego Rotaliano in my cellar, but I had never really known what it was.

                                    For my wife and I, the real fun of Italy starts outside the major cities.

                                    1. re: BN1

                                      Great post, BN1, thanks for sharing. i should also add that the Villa Madruzzo is now on my list. Again, a great story!!!

                                    2. re: Joe H

                                      We found the food in Bologna to be fabulous, much better than anything we had in Florence. In fact, overall, it is in Bologna that we probably had the best food we've had during many trips to Italy.

                                      Last summer, I happened to go to Bolzano for an overnighter. It was an unexpected trip, and I'd done no research or preparation, but I ate reasonably well. And what a charming town w/beautiful vistas. I definitely want to return some time with my husband. And I'll look for your review of your dining experiences.

                                      1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                        Thanks, nomadchowwoman (great handle!). We are suppose to leave Sunday and three hours ago, with airports apparently reopening across Europe we felt comfortable-once again-looking forward to the trip. Unfortunately, I just read on the internet that another volcanic cloud is heading towards England! At this point I really don't know what we are going to do. I've probably averaged a half dozen trips or more to Europe for thirty years (most on business) but never really thought of it as sitting on the other side of an ocean. I've even missed flights, had them cancelled, even changed plans at the last minute and added or been forced to add another day or two. Or three. None of this phased me.

                                        But this is different.

                                        My guess is that if all goes well over the next several days I'll have a very long post on here in about two weeks and some wonderful memories. But if there really is another cloud and they shut the airports so soon after reopening them we are going to have a real decision to make.

                                        Speaking of Bologna:

                                          1. re: Joe H

                                            sad, remind me how powerless we still are compared to the mother nature.

                                            1. re: Joe H

                                              so sorry. maybe go in June when there are wildflowers in the mountains, spring greens and cherries.

                                                1. re: Joe H

                                                  Sorry to hear that, Joe.
                                                  BTW, just read your Bologna thread. And, oh, the market . . . that was pure torture to me. I wanted to buy so many things to take home, but could only pick up a few tokens because of our subsequent travel plans. Wanted to stock up on cheeses, meats, tortelloni . . .Wanted so much to be able to cook while there, but we were holed up in a hotel room . . .it was torture.
                                                  We were there for almost a week, and the weather was horrid the whole time--which was perfect for long, indulgent meals. We basically ate, then went back to the room and waited for the next meal. (I watched both "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind," dubbed in Italian, during between- meal stretches.) But the food was delicious. Next time, I am determined to rent an apartment and do some cooking w/those fabulous ingredients.

                                                  I hope you'll be able to get to Italy pronto!

                                                  1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                                    Great line, nomadchowwoman, "we basically ate, then went back to the room and waited for the next meal."

                              2. re: kyeblue

                                If it was a matter of just big cities vs. countryside there'd be more requests here for Milan or Torino or Genoa.

                                It is because although people may be foodies, they plan their sightseeing trip first and then look for places to eat which will be convenient as well. If people here were planning food-oriented trips there'd be a lot less requests for where to eat in Florence or Venice and many more for Torino or Bologna or Napoli or Sicily.

                                I also agree with jen kalb about the Red Guide. The recommendations are very predictable and tend to favor fancier and more expensive places. Before we plan a trip, we often scour the boards here and some blogs and writers we trust. Outside of the Big Three cities, recommendations for other areas are quite good, supplemented by dedicated food tourists or by Italian locals. The Slowfood guide is outstanding as are the Touring Club of Italy guides which, to their credit, spend as many pages describing the Food of the region as they do the Sights.

                                I've been on other boards and what distinguishes this board is that I see many one-time posters who are not regular Chowhounders and come in here to post that this or that Trattoria was the best Italian meal they've ever had in their life - and very little detail of why this is the case. I tend to mostly disregard these posts since I have no basis on which to judge them. I do wish that, like many other boards, people would take more time to explain what it is they found appealing and also compare it to other meals they've had in Italy or other food they've tasted in their own home country. This is after all, what makes Chowhound useful. Overwhelmingly these one-time posts are about meals in Florence, Venice or Rome.