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Jun 12, 2011 08:56 AM

Finding restaurants in Italy

I'll begin by apologizing to anyone who finds this post lacking in specifics.

I come from an Italian family, was schooled in the USA and have subsequently lived and worked in both countries, as well as many others. I love to eat, as does my wife. We now split our time between Switzerland and the USA but spend at least a month or two in Italy every year just eating.

At the risk of sounding brash, here's some of my thoughts on locating a good spot to eat:

Simple rules:
If the menu is in multiple languages, walk.
If there many light skinned tourists in shorts and sandals walk.
If there are plates laden with cream sauce on them, walk.
If the smells don't stir your insides, walk.
Do not ask a non-Italian for advice on an Italian restaurant. There's seldom a reference point other than some place in Illinois or another restaurant in Italy they tried during their two week trip.
Ask a local. Not a hotel clerk, a local. English is common and a few words in Italian is all it takes.

Tougher Rules:
Know a bit about the regional cuisine before you eat. There's still pride left in Italian restaurants.
Know what's in season. Important.
Use your eyes and your nose. There is usually outside seating, look before you sit.
We don't make reservations. We've been turned away perhaps twice in well over 3,000 meals. A couple of bad tables, less than a 15 minute wait at most. However, we've walked out of restaurants plenty of times after using our eyes and our noses.

Recognize the best eating in Italy is in the home. Ask the editor of Gambero Rosso, ask any restauranteur, they will all tell you this. So when you see that little place stuck on an off street full of locals and mama running around in her apron, ask yourself if it's time to eat.

If we look back at the thousands of restaurant meals we've eaten in Italy, about a half dozen come to mind. The first was an old house off a country road north of Rome where we walked in and discovered a cafeteria for workers. The proprietors almost fell over in disbelief when three of us walked through the door and asked to eat. Primo, second, desert, table wine, grappa -$14 for all of us. The cooking was superb. A seafood place around Ostia - $21 for three of us. A seafood place in an industrial part of Milan. The rest are split between "famous" restaurants and holes in the wall.

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  1. What ere was thought, but n'er said so well.

    Excellent list! More people coming here to Italy should memorize it, particularly the first two of the tougher rules.

    I would add one rule and slightly amend two others. If there is anything with truffle oil, walk.

    With regard to asking locals, it depends on who the locals are. Most locals are looking for familiarity (their family has gone to the same place on Sunday for the last several hundred years) and it is within two kilometers of where they live (everything else is a foreign country). They are looking for quantity and low cost for that quantity. They do not care about wine. I would modify your rule by adding to ask locals... who know something about food and wine.

    Make a reservation for Saturday evening and Sunday lunch. We've seen many people get turned away at those times

    Again, thanks for writing so well on something that needed to be said. Now what are those Chianti restaurants that you enjoy so much?

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      1. Generally good advice, but, I would submit, in part a bit out of date. For example, you have to make reservations, or at least call ahead for any place whose name and phone number have ever been published anywhere. But I will say it again -- not very far in advance or you'll clog up these nice old places and the "locals" that foreigners so love to eat with will never be able to get a table. I'd make another rule: always carry a cell phone.

        Knowing about the regional AND LOCAL cuisines beforehand should go to the top of the list. Armed with the knowledge of what local cooking involves, you can be much more discriminating and able to evaluate the menus that are invariably posted outside restaurants.

        As a non-Italian with a pretty high opinion of my own opinions, I would have to take exception to your advice to ignore non-Italians. I have lived in Rome more than thirty years, which counts for more than a passport. And yet locals, of any nationality, often recommend places other locals think are awful. I have dragged my native Roman husband to restaurants recommended by locals who post on this board to the point that I have no more credibility at home. For him they range from blah to awful (and I have never seriously disagreed with him). The only way for "local advice" to be truly effective is for the local advising you to go to dinner with you, introduce you to the owner, and order for you, and that isn't even a guarantee. Visitors often have different needs and desires. I will grant that this position makes it very hard to choose where to eat, so the best advice I can offer is (a) get corroboration and (b) read between the lines of posts and reviews. Sometimes a reviewer likes a place for all the reasons you would hate it and vice versa. Of course, when all this research is impossible, as often, your advice for on-the-spot evaluation is spot-on.

        The shorts-and-sandals, multi-language, cream sauce group of rules is of course true, but I'd add that I would scarcely expect anyone reading here to get close to those places, especially since they often also have touts outside -- the ultimate turn-off.