The thistledown of Italian cuisine has been blown across the planet on the winds of globalization, and Italian restaurants have sprung up in almost every country in the world. But, as is so often the case, what has evolved in places like the United States or United Kingdom can look rather odd to native eyes. Italian cooking itself is so diverse, with each of its 20 regions having a distinct base of ingredients and typical dishes. A journey around Italy is a great way to experience the true breadth and diversity of Italian cooking, whether it involves savouring Adriatic seafood in watery Venice, or enjoying the stocks of game found in the Tuscan hills.
Rome is home to many magnificent restaurants, along with its fair share of half-baked tourist traps, so it’s worth doing a little research before hitting the streets in search of a good dinner. Trattoria Monti is run by a family from La Marche, so its cuisine comes from a region other than Lazio. But its reputation has grown to make it a staple of the city’s food scene, and what are capitals for if not drawing together themes and flavors from the rest of the country? Fried antipastos, a decadent tortelloni, and delicious roasted meats are among its specialities. Another of Rome’s most renowned dining experiences can be had at three-Michelin-starred La Pergola, which bathes diners in an uber-sophisticated ambience and magnificent views over the Eternal City, all matched by an exquisite menu. Visitors who prefer a more casual atmosphere should consider La Gatta Mangiona, which bakes some of the best Neapolitan-style pizza in Rome, accompanied by pitch-perfect Rome-style suppli, all washed down with a fantastic array of craft beers.
One of the world’s great cities for art, Florence isn’t bad for food, either, with restaurants across all atmospheres and budgets serving superb Tuscan cuisine. The city’s art and food cultures come together at Teatro del Sale, a high-concept but eminently affordable restaurant with live entertainment every night. Foreign visitors must buy a yearly membership for around five euros, before purchasing the evening buffet, joining the bustle at the kitchen window to receive a succession of delicious creations. A little further off the beaten track is L’Osteria di Giovanni, which came to prominence as a neighborhood favorite. Although the locals have since been squeezed out by the tides of tourists, the food has remained fantastic. It’s classic Tuscan cooking, using the same local and seasonal produce that composed dishes three hundred years ago: juicy tomatoes, barley, wheat, and the inner and outer parts of the animals that graze the surrounding hills.
Milan is a fast-paced city, and one of its culinary specialities is the panzerotto, a pocket-sized ball of sweet dough filled with a combination of savory ingredients that can be grabbed over the counter and munched on the go. Among the best places to eat it is Luini’s, which has been serving panzerotti to the whole spectrum of Milanese society since 1948. Another Milanese institution, dating back to 1953, is Pizzeria Spontini, which serves superb thick and oily pizzas to eat in or take out. Much that is distinctive of Milanese cuisine is its quick-moving inventiveness, not surprising for a city positioned at the center of Italy’s trade winds. Ristorante Cracco is currently at the top end of trendy avant-garde Milanese eateries, a two-star Michelin restaurant with an experimental menu. More traditional fare comes in the form of filling, warming comfort food, such as the cheese- and butter-thickened Risotto alla Milanese – but the best way to experience this is slouched at home with a few newly made local friends.
Bologna is a great city to eat out in – passionate, affordable, and with a strong culinary tradition. This tradition has created mortadella sausage and, of course, Bolognese, though the latter is usually called ragu and comes with tagliatelle, or perhaps gnocchi, but never spaghetti. The city also has some excellent broths, perfect for the cold northern winters. Da Gianni is a convenient place to enjoy all of this, located in the heart of the tourist district but successfully retaining the soul of Bolognese cooking. A little further out, better hidden from the tourist hordes, is Al Sangiovese, a cozy and quieter establishment with a broad menu and, of course, excellent Aangiovese-based wine.
Verona is a small and, compared to its near neighbor Venice, understated city, but it has a distinctive food culture with a handful of exceptionally colorful restaurants. Risotto is a regional speciality, as lots of rice is grown in the rolling countryside around the city, and it’s also known for its delicious cured meats. 12 Apostoli is a Verona institution, named after 12 local tradesmen who would regularly meet, eat and do business on the site 250 years ago. It serves sublime pasta dishes and has an excellent wine cellar, which is worth looking at as well as sampling – it contains a well-preserved slice of Roman road and the rocky ruins of a temple of Jove. Another restaurant with great food served in an unusual setting is the Michelin-starred Osteria la Fontanina, its dining room festooned with candlesticks, paintings, antique furniture, dusty bottles and decorative plates.
Turin is at the center of Italy’s Slow Food movement, a much needed corrective to the insidious spread of fast-food chains, which was born on the fertile earth of the surrounding Piemonte region. One of the hubs of Slow Food can be found at the bustling Eataly food court, where stalls sell a vast array of vegetables, cheese, charcuterie, pasta and wine. The city also has lots of excellent restaurants, but, being more obviously industrial than its economically similar sibling Milan, they tend to be less accosted by foreign tourists. This means a little Italian will be useful, but also that strolling the streets and coming across an excellent, authentic place to eat is much easier than in many of the other cities on this list. Specific stand-outs include L’Acino, a compact wine bar and restaurant with a tiny menu containing a smattering of superb pasta dishes; and Caffe San Carlo, which serves the best Gianduja gelato (chocolate hazelnut ice cream) in the city.
Once a quiet fishing village, Genoa was carried on the trade winds of the upper Mediterranean to the size and regional significance it holds today. This means it has grown haphazardly, spreading its maze of streets across a series of hillsides that afford sudden, sublime views over the ocean below. A thriving fish and seafood culture have survived the turbulent years of accelerated development. Another Genoese invention that has quietly taken over the world is pesto, the simplicity of which makes for a great street food, quickly concocted from Genovese basil and pine nuts and Ligurian olive oil. More upmarket pesto dishes can be enjoyed at sophisticated and authentic Sa’ Pesta, which also specializes in Farinata, an oily pancake baked with chickpea flour.
Portofino is a pretty fishing village on the Ligurian coast which has evolved into an upmarket resort, visited by many of the huge cruise ships that ply the warm waters of Italy’s shoreline. It’s picturesque harbour, which attracted wealthy north European travellers to the village in the late 19th century, is now a buzzing loop of restaurants and cafes. One of the best is Chuflay Restaurant in the Splendido Mare Hotel, with an outside terrace overlooking the water and a superb menu of delectable, exquisitely-presented dishes. Alternatively, head a little uphill from the harbor and escape the main swell of tourists at Trattoria Concordia, a simple and affordable restaurant with an authentic Ligurian menu composed of pasta, pesto, meat and fish.
Discovering the best restaurants on Italy’s Amalfi Coast is a joy in itself: this is a stunning stretch of shoreline, a patchwork of lemon groves and old whitewashed villages overlooking the glittering Mediterranean below. Among the most picturesque towns is Positano, where wanderers can find the fabulous La Tagliata, which has a warm atmosphere and breathtaking views, and makes excellent use of local produce in a varied range of dishes. Alternatively, head to Amalfi itself, where the Trattoria da Gemma is situated on a busy street winding down to the main piazza. Much like its neighbors, the Trattoria puts its fish and seafood at the forefront, while highlighting one of Amalfi’s great international exports and local specialties, fresh anchovies.