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Jul 10, 2012 10:54 AM

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