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Am I CRAZY to go to Italy without any formal dining plans or reservations???

I am a longtime CHer. Everytime I travel I pour over the boards, ask questions and make a plan A & a plan B and then some.

I'm headed to Italy next month and I haven't researched restaurants at all. This is completely out of character for me. I really can't explain it. I'm traveling with a friend and we are going to visit her good friend, who lives near Levanto, just North of Pisa. We'll spend a night in Florence, Lucca, a couple of nights around Lake Garda where we'll visit some wineries in Fumane and then head to Levanto and do a little exploring of the Cinque Terre.

I've done a little reading about regional dishes for the areas we're visiting. We are trying to be less regimented with our planning and want to go with the flow. Is it possible to find deliciousness without planning? Am I nuts to gamble? I should say that I am not interested in Michelin stars or fine dining. Just good simple food, wine and quality ingredients. Any general tips on how to avoid touristy places and find charming little restaurants & markets would be greatly appreciated.


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  1. Most of the dire warnings are for major cities, where research and reservations really are important. I would certainly have some names and addresses and a mobile phone. There are apps for Gambero Rosso and Osterie d'Italia, both in Italian, which I would certainly have, especially the latter. I'd have a plan for Florence and probably for Lucca too. I haven't been in decades, but my impression is there are more tourists than Lucchesi, especially in August.
    How to avoid tourist places in tourist destinations indeed. Besides the obvious, a preponderance of nonlocal dishes is a tipoff. When you see spaghetti all'amatriciana on Lago di Garda, you can be sure it's aimed at German tourists looking for good value and what they know as Italian food on the Gardasee.
    No, you're not nuts, entirely. As long as you have some backup information, you should be all right.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mbfant

      Good info - thanks mbfant! This is exactly the kind of insight I was hoping for.

    2. Lynn, actually, I think you have made a brilliant decision! I am a Cher, and an avid traveler, and I'm old enough to remember the days before CH, TripAdvisor etc... Years ago, we'd pick a city and go. There was no pouring over B&B's, and restaurants....we'd just go. We'd stroll around and pick a place to eat.. WE never had a bad meal. My last few breaks, I litterally spent hours researching restaurants...I've made detailed lists with notes next to each place. I'm doing it now! I'm off to Krakow, and most of my research is being done on the restaurants! UGHHHH I have five nights and about 15 *must try* places in mind. I'm driving myself crazy!! In fact, just this morning, I thought I might pick 2 places to definitely try, and just wing the rest. It might be more exciting anyway! To back up my POV, - last year I went to Bruges..I had every meal picked out.. (after months of research)...well, almost every meal was a disappointment! None of the restaurants lived up to their reveiws or reputations...NONE! I had been to Bruges about 12 years before that - having gone without any research whatsoever (I had never even heard of the place until I got to Brussels!)...and every single meal we had on that trip was TO DIE FOR. So! My advice - Go and find the charming spots on your own. The best way to do it, is to stroll around - go off the main streets...ask locals. I reckon the most authentic and charming places aren't being reviewed here or on the web.. I should think that if you find the place on the spot and your drawn to it for the character - then even if the meal isnt **the best** - just enjoying the moment for what it is will mke up for it! It sounds wonderful!!!!Have a fantastic trip!!

      1 Reply
      1. re: NellyNel

        Aww NellyNel, thank you! As I was reading about your exhaustive restaurant research my anxiety level went up a smidge. I do that sort of research all the time and next thing I know I am obsessing and driving myself mad. That's precisely what I want to avoid. We have Swedish friends who are huge food lovers and are extremely well-traveled. They NEVER do any restaurant research, they just go and do as you described "The best way to do it, is to stroll around - go off the main streets...ask locals". When I was going to Paris last October my friend told me to do this and that I would not be disappointed. I just didn't trust myself to find the brasseries that I hoped for.

        You're right, NellyNel, I hope you have an amazing trip as well!

      2. You'll be fine. Outside of the tourist areas, the standard for food is quite high. Lots of places that get raved about on CH local boards would be just the everyday standard in Italy.

        2 Replies
        1. re: jaykayen

          Just stay away from places that have "tourist menus" outisde the door. Those are the ones with something for everyone. I just came back and while I do research I almost never make reservations because I never know how I will feel on that particular night so prefer to keep my options open. The only thing I can tell you is that when you are in Liguria (Cinque Terra) you must eat trofie with pesto - traditionally it is served with small potatoes and green beans as well. Pra - near Genoa is the capitol of pesto but you can eat it everywhere!!

          1. re: DolceFarNiente

            Thank you! And yes, I've read about trofie w/ pesto - and I am so looking forward to it. Fortunately our friend is living in this area and her in-laws own a restaurant and olive orchard nearby (where they press their own olive oil - yay!).

        2. As a former expat for two year long posts in Rome rest assured the real 'bests' are going to be found in some of the smallest most humble places that would barely catch a tourist's eye and that applies in Rome to Florence to Lucca or Pienza or Orvieto, etc. you can go to the popular iconic shrines of cooking and maybe that is worth one trip in a hundred but if you want fresh, local cuisine with ingredients they are willing to serve their family and neighbors, the local trattorias and enotecas rarely disappoint. Eat as a local, don't try to search for dinners before 8 or 9 pm. Sleep in and live the lifestyle. Avoiding stress over where to eat and will it be good enough concerns. The bests are sometimes little more than some brilliant cheese, great bread, some salami or equivalent and the local wines recommended by a good merchant. breakfasts of super ripe fruits sampled at the campo dei Fiori market followed by some great coffee simply can't be beat. Go to enjoy.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ThanksVille

            ThanksVille, you made me smile. You have articulated exactly what I hope to accomplish. And it is these little tidbits of advice that I had hoped to gather from this thread. Many thanks.

          2. Went to Italy in the Pisa, Florence, Lucca area 6 years ago. Mostly ate with relatives there, or just went to almost any place that looked decent. The soups were all homemade as were the pasta sauces. I am partial to the bolognese sauce prepared there. We were not disappointed. But, you have to be prepared for it to be different. We stayed at a small hotel in Fornaci di Barga. Coffee was usually an expresso variety, unless requested as cafe americano. Eggs for breakfast was not commonplace, but served on request, language was a barrier, but they tried very hard to please. I didn't get the impression that the smaller (less touristy) places spoke much English. We then traveled to the Amalfi coast and just ate anywhere that looked good. We were quite pleased with it all. Would go back in a heartbeat!! Bongiorno - Marie

            1. I'm in a similar boat, I've used CH to research for a number of trips in the past few years but mostly to get dishes to try and a few specific restaurant recommendations. For my Rome trip tomorrow, I've used this board to compile a list of restaurants (all different ranges) that I would like to try, I've plotted them on a Google map and will consult the map, based on where we are, at any given time we get hungry or thirsty... if we are near one of the tagged places we'll drop by, if not we'll wing it.

              I agree with a previous poster who indicated they have no idea what they might feel like eating on a given night so I've only made one dinner reservation for Rome for Saturday night. I'm not going to say where as I've seen too many contributors get ripped a part for their restaurant choices on this board (in particular this board compared to others).

              I plan to spend the long weekend wandering, enjoying sites I haven't seen in a few years, discovering new ones and sampling the best food and wine I can find in the area I am in. I might fail horribly (not likely) but I'm willing to bet I have a great weekend nonetheless and I won't stress over the planning... too much.

              1 Reply
              1. re: vanderb

                Good luck vanderb! Have a wonderful trip.

              2. When we went to Sorrento many years ago (before the internet!) the best meal we had was one recommended by our limo driver. It was raining the day we planned to go to Capri, so the lady at the jewelry shop called her friend Franco to take us for a little ride up to Amalfi instead. He took us to a simple restaurant hidden up a hill and it was down to earth and exquisite at the same time. It's good to research a little, but I still believe in asking the locals after I get somewhere also.

                1. We spent two weeks in Venice, Como, Florence and Tuscany with not a single reservation. We had fantastic meals. The secret, we asked for recommendations from all kinds of folks. I'm a wine geek so we did have reservations for quite a few good wineries. The recommendations from the folks there were always spot on. We did some research while we were there but mostly relied on just going where it looked good.

                  My best advice, make sure to stay away from places that cater to tourists. That means don't go where there are pictures of the food in the window, where there is a menu in English posted outside, or anywhere near the Great Canal in Venice.

                  The best meals we had were ones where we ate in small places where nobody spoke English. One server was amazed that I ordered octopus and then loved it. Of course it helped that what Italian I do know tends to consist of menu speak, but you don't need to go to the famous places to eat really well, and you will certainly have a great time if you just take your chances and be daring.

                  On the other hand, if you do want to do some research here is a link to some notes from a friend who owns a well respected Italian restaurant here in DC. He is in Italy all the time and is a major food and wine lover and knows of what he speaks.


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: dinwiddie

                    Thanks dinwiddie, I too am a wine lover and I am most excited about visiting the amarone producers - yes, I've got reservations for those! ;-)

                    I will definitely read your friends post - it's a long one and it looks to be goooood readin'!


                  2. lynnlato:
                    I really think the Internet has made me twice as anxious and worrisome than I was before! After a couple of trips where I literally worked myself into exhaustion and a migraine from scouring the boards trying to find the "best," the "most authentic," the "undiscovered" etc., I swore I would never do it again. You ask "Is it possible to find deliciousness without planning?" and I will answer with a resounding "YES!!!" Some of the best places we have eaten were found just by wandering around and going with our innate sense of what looked and sounded good. I truly believe that as long as you stay away from the strictly tourist-centric restaurants, you will be fine. After all, not every meal has to be the "best" of your life. Once you put that kind of thinking behind you, you'll find you will enjoy yourself much more.

                    Buon appetito and buon viaggo!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: ttoommyy

                      however the great gift of the internet is enabling us to share our discoveries and experiences, not to turn them into some kind of a canon of choices which can not be deviated from but as ideas about delicious dishes and specific places to find them.

                      Nothing is more frustrating here than people coming on and reporting that they had a wonderful meal or even just saying that they ate very well and then not telling us the name and location where they had the meal or saying they dont remember! My experience reading trip reports mostly on other sites where people just wander and eat wherever is that they experience a higher dissatisfaction with their overall experience than people who are more prepared and mindful (at least about the local cuisine so that they can evaluate the posted menus that they see and make good dish choices). There must be some kind of sweet spot between researching/planning, talking with locals and just simple serendipity that works best.

                      1. re: jen kalb

                        @jen kalb

                        I'm just reporting my experience as a response to lynnlato's question. All I know is the more I pre-planned restaurants and read these and other boards, the worse my trip became...and I hadn't even left my house yet. It would be fine if in reality it were an exchange of "ideas about delicious dishes and specific places to find them" but more than not there is such opposite reviews on specific restaurants that one is back at square one wondering if a place is really good or not. I understand people having a difference of opinion, but it has been my experience that I can never really find a majority of people agreeing on any place on these boards (not just the Italy board). And that is where it becomes very frustrating.

                        Perhaps it is my age showing but at one time we relied on word of mouth from friends and family who we had something in common with. Or, we relied on a guide book that we found to be time tested. Now we have basically the whole world weighing in on something and it is very difficult to sift through all the opinions (and arguments) to find some meaningful information. I am not saying it is impossible, but for some of us it takes the fun out of planning a trip.

                        1. re: ttoommyy

                          I think one winds up looking for opinions from folks whose taste (you find through experience) align the most with yours, just like the old word of mouth. But unless folks are actually stating reasons or posting reviews of the preferred places, it can be hard to know what to think of yea or nay conflicting opinions. Less info can definitely be more, since I remember travelling very satisfactorily with the red michelin (picking thebourgeois rather than fancy places), a few other reccs and my own chowdar. But on the whole we have a richer much more sophisticated informantion environment now which can benefit us if we dont overdose.

                      2. re: ttoommyy

                        You nailed it, ttoommyy. You described what sometimes happens to me when I comb through these boards/posts endlessly. I end up with a headache! I truly value CH and these boards but this time I don't want to obsess - I just want to throw caution to the wind and trust the locals I meet along the way. I will surely ask the folks I meet at the wineries - and other folks I meet that I get that CHer-vibe from.

                      3. Lynn!

                        I am so glad you posted this!
                        You have inspired me to ditch my list for Krakow!
                        Well, not entirely...I am going to pick two restaurants, but the other three dinners and lunchs I will will do spontaneously..
                        I'm glad I did some research, just to have an idea of what foods/dishes I want to try, but I am going to ditch a solid plan.

                        Lynn,. your trip sounds amazing!
                        Please post back about your food experiences - we'd love to read about it!

                        Thanks again!

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: NellyNel

                          @ Jen

                          You said:"Nothing is more frustrating here than people coming on and reporting that they had a wonderful meal or even just saying that they ate very well and then not telling us the name and location where they had the meal or saying they dont remember!"

                          Actually, I think there are two things even more frustrating. First, people using the board, asking all kinds of questions and then not even having the courtesy to take the time to report on their trip. This happens a lot.

                          Secondly, people reporting they had a wonderful meal and then not reporting what they had to eat and drink.

                          1. re: allende

                            yeah, well I guess there are a lot of frustrations, people being people, maybe I shouldnt have said most frustrating.- but it is a characteristic one sees - oh," I just wander around and use my chowdar and have great food" - but thats as far as the information sharing goes! they tantalize and dont deliver. I guess its encouraging for posters like OP that it happens but not very helpful to those of us looking for someting more concrete.

                            Detailed reports of actual meals are one of the most valuable and interesting aspects of boards like this - gives readers a much better idea about the cuisine and ambiance and whether others will be likely to enjoy eating there. Report threads seem to be taking second place these days to requests for restaurant lists and vetting of same - I really hope we can encourage more reporting like the very good reports that you provide!.

                            1. re: jen kalb

                              OK Jen, you have shamed me into writing a report of my recent trip to Positano!! It will not be very detailed (I was with a very non-chow bunch of ladies) but there will be reviews! And I can't remember if I ever did a report on our trip last year to FVG and the Veneto?? Shame on me!! ;-)

                              1. re: ekc

                                It would be great if you would write these up!

                                For some reason I have my own issues writing reports of my meals, so I can relate to this - sometimes its easier to report via responses to queries from others - sitting down and writing a report of a whole trip, rather than individual meals can feel overwhelming. Id say whatever works for the individual, reporting as you go, writing a "trip report" after or whatever is effective sharing the info works.

                                1. re: jen kalb

                                  Well Jen, that is part of my problem. After each trip I write a complete report of the trip, including everything we did not just the meals. It is a daunting task - my last report on the FVG/Veneto trip last year was 20 pages. So the thought of going back and re-doing the report to take out everything but the meals seems to be too much, as I am usually so OVER the report by the time I get it done! Also, I am not nearly as detailed about the meals as I should be, so I feel kind of silly submitting a report here that says "we ate at X and had a great meal, even though I took very few notes on what we ate".
                                  BUT for the good of our Italy CH community, I will try and do better - at submit both reports here in the near future!!

                          2. re: NellyNel

                            Wahooo! I feel like this is a bra-burning moment! Only instead of bras we burn our laptops... ok, never mind. LOL

                            Ttoommyy did a fine job of describing the type of tizzy I work myself up into sometimes... I just don't have the energy or patience to comb through the threads and obsess over restaurants so I'm scrapping that strategy this time and will be winging it, for the most part. I'm kind of excited about it now. I will definitely follow up with how it went. Best of luck to you and let us know how it goes!

                            1. re: lynnlato

                              Yup - WhooooHooo

                              I also totally agree about your comment below regarding people obsessed with documenting their trip as opposed to enjoying their trip...Drives me nuts!
                              Last year I went to a U2 concert, and was actually infuriated by all who surrounded me, as they were so busy taking pics, or texting, throughout, that I find it hard to believe they really enjoyed the music...I kept thinking "wow - is society really not able to just enjoy the moment these days"
                              Anyway, rant over...

                              to PBSF below -
                              "There are those that are free spirited and those that must plan every move when they are traveling. The latter must feel that they have pick the very best, otherwise, their trip is not a success. It is the 'maximizing' mentality"
                              I agree with you..
                              And my normal obsession with making restaurants lists is entirely not in keeping with my personality..
                              I am not, and have never been a planner..
                              However, when it comes to food - well, I can't help it - I love food and I just want to see what kind of restaurants a ginven place has to offer, and it doing that I come across a million places I **have to** try!

                              I am still interested in looking at places on the web, but I am not going to have a set plan - I am sure I will love my experience no matter what!!

                          3. I understand that some people need to do it, maybe in a big city (but even that is an if), but what's wrong with having a general plan and then following your nose and your appetite? I've never understood the people who write in asking for critique and they have scheduled EVERY single meal, often at big Michelin star $$$, two or even three per day. Don't they get tired and want to break free of self imposed must eat check the box dining?!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: katnat

                              Admittedly, I've tried to do that in larger destination cities and really, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. For one, It's a ridiculous amount of food, and it's just so regimented that you lose site of the concept of a vacation because you're just chasing that perfect meal. It's similar to those people (I've done this too) who spend their entire vacation behind a camera capturing everything without experiencing anything. Maybe I'm getting wiser as I grow old??? ;-)

                            2. A smartphone with a data plan can be your best travel accessory when exploring neighborhoods for food and drink.

                              1. I think it depends on the individual's personality. There are those that are free spirited and those that must plan every move when they are traveling. The latter must feel that they have pick the very best, otherwise, their trip is not a success. It is the 'maximizing' mentality. They plan a three day stay in Rome like planning for the invasion of Normandy. I can understand that if one wants dine at La Pergola, one needs to make a reservation way ahead of time. Reservation weeks ahead for trattorie/osterie? when is a particular trattoria/osteria a must? to me that is just silly. My Italian friends comment that this is an American obsession. For me, I carry a list and in large tourist cities like Rome, make a same day reservation. If they are full, I just go down my list. And in driving trips, for me it impossible to know where I might be, how tire I am or what I am in the mood for. I carry a slow food or another guide. In your case, you are visiting a good friend near Levanto and yours is a wonderful unplanned sort of trip

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: PBSF

                                  Do not forget that a lot of people will travel to a city only once (maybe twice) in their lifetime; and for them it is a big deal, from a money point of view and from an "experience" point of view.

                                  I'm finalizing my first trip to Rome, I don't know the city or the food/restaurant culture; but I'm well travelled in Europe and know what to expect (more or less); a long as I have a place to sleep and a plane to come and go, I can deal with everything.

                                  For someone who did not have the privilege to travel a lot, making lists and reservations and planning stuff eliminate a lot of the stress of traveling (or so they think).

                                  1. re: Maximilien

                                    I think some planning is good and different people deal with foreign travel differently. And there is nothing wrong to read about what are the good places are. But planning everything to a minute detail and flip flopping back and forth between two similar trattorie puts a lot of pressure on traveling. There are people who love planning trips and that can be a lot of fun. Plan and go with it rather than forever searching that there might be a better place out there. Making reservation weeks in advance for a particular trattoria in Rome or a hot bistrot in Paris when there are so many good ones is not my idea of planning. Same for sweating over if pizzeria A is marginally better than B; It is not a matter life or death if one is booked. As another poster stated earlier, more information does not necessary make one better informed; frequently it just muddle things more.