You really don’t need to travel to Italy to know that the food there is incredible. From pizza to pasta, gelato to biscotti, Italians know how to make killer food. Carrie and I ate our way through the country for a month and had some of the best meals we’ve eaten during our Italy leg. This isn’t surprising, but was very welcome after 3 weeks of Dal Bhat in Nepal. We were on a mission to add back some of the weight we lost in Nepal, and more than succeeded in that task.
Coffee is an integral part of culture in Italy. In Rome, they have the quick cup of joe down to a science. The coffee shops are set up as bars where you walk in, order your espresso, cappuccino, or macchiato from the coffee “bartender”, drink it standing up with your morning croissant, then you’re on your way. In and out in less than 5 minutes! Even though this type of coffee bar was only a Roman thing, everywhere we stopped had fantastic coffee. We made the mistake once of asking a waiter if his restaurant served coffee. He looked at us like we had just asked him a question in Swahili, then gave us his response – “of coouuurrsseeee”. Every restaurant has an elaborate espresso machine to serve the coffee, and they can crank out killer cups of coffee in no time flat. I grew accustomed to the Americano (espresso with hot water added) as it allowed me to sip my coffee for longer, and Carrie gravitated toward the macchiato, which is espresso with a little bit of foamy milk.
The one coffee drink that Italians don’t seem to do (in fact, most of the world doesn’t seem to do) is standard iced coffee. We did see all sorts of unusual presentations of iced coffee – blended, with and without ice cream, hot coffee poured over ice – it ran the gamut. But while we were in Puglia, we found THE BEST iced coffee. It’s called “caffe leccese” and it’s ONLY found in the Puglia region. When we asked for it elsewhere in Italy people looked at us funny. Caffe leccese is basically a hot espresso served alongside a small glass filled with ice and a little bit of strong almond "milk" - but it was syrupy, not like the almond milk we know. Pour the expresso over the ice and voila – delicious, sweet, almondy cold coffee drink, perfect for people watching in a piazza. The day we discovered the caffe leccesse Carrie ended up having two, then talked at about 2x speed for the next 6 hours. The caffeine will get ya!
Who’s in a Rush?
Just like most places outside the US, waiters generally don’t kick you out after you’ve finished your meal. You have to specifically ask for the check. In other countries this was a pain because the waiter just didn’t really care about making your dining experience pleasurable and ignored us, but in Italy the waiters want you to stay, relax, and digest your food before leaving. They don’t want to rush you out the door. So we thoroughly enjoyed being able to sit and finish our meal, chat over the bottom of our wine glasses, and leave when we were ready. The slow pace of Italy was lovely, and further exemplified how important relaxing and conversing with friends is in their culture.
The birthplace of Pizza
Trust me, Carrie and I know our pizza. Carrie once organized a pizza tour for a friend’s birthday that involved hitting famous pizzerias all over the giant borough of Brooklyn. I’ve done two pizza crawls with my buddies where we start on 1st street in Manhattan and walk up an avenue, stopping at every pizza joint along the way, rating their pizza (I can provide ratings sheets for 1st and 2nd avenues for anyone interested). So yeah, we know our pizza. Not surprisingly, pizza was one of the foods we were most excited to try while in the country that invented pizza.
The pizza in Italy tends to be a little different than your garden variety “round slice” you’d get in the States. First off, they don’t do slices, they do personal pizzas. And just like every meal in Italy, although the pizzas are big, you get shamed if you don’t order one just for yourself. No sharing here! The pizzas also have a much softer crust, so the middle of the pie is a little soupy and the edges of the pie are fluffy, charred, and delicate. And the last big difference – everyone uses a fork and knife. The pizza comes out uncut, and it’s up to the diner to slice it however he pleases. Since the center of the pie is generally a little floppy it makes perfect sense that fork and knifing it is the preferred eating method. Whenever we’d order a pizza I’d always think of the scene from Seinfeld where George eats his candy bar with a fork and knife. “How do you eat it….with your hands?”
We found there was a very easy way to tell if a restaurant was a tourist spot or an authentic spot – what was on the table at a restaurant. Here in the US, most Italian restaurants serve bread with olive oil and pasta with parmigiano. Not so in Italy. So we came to know that if olive oil was on the table, or a bowl of shaved parmigiano was brought with dinner, we knew were at a tourist spot. Same with fresh ground pepper on our pasta – tourist spot. Food generally comes out exactly how it is supposed to be eaten, no alterations needed. And although you could ask for grated parm for your pasta, you’ll generally be scoffed at, like we saw when we were at a fairly nice dinner spot in Vernazzo and a fellow American couple asked for it. The waiter chuckled under his breath and brought out the parm, but we could tell he wasn't pleased! He said "but it already has the parmigiano on it!"
Before we got to Italy we hadn't expected to find world class beef, especially since we weren't going to be spending much time in the northern part of the country. We were wrong! One of the specialties of Tuscany is something called Chianina Beef. Chianina steer are some of the old, tallest, and heaviest breeds of steer in the world. They are also one of the tastiest. Carrie and I had been eating pasta and fish for 2.5 weeks, so by the time we made it to Florence and saw steak, we knew we had to try it.
First off, they sell you a steak weighed by the kilogram (a kilogram is roughly 2.2 lbs). So we were a bit apprehensive about ordering a 2.2 lb steak until the waitress told us we could order 700 grams of steak (which is still a lot!) We ordered one of those and some pasta to share. The waitress then came out and showed us the cut they would cook for us - it was as big as my head. Flashbacks to the move The Great Outdoors and John Candy polishing off the Ol' 96er crossed my mind as I thought about how we were going to eat such a giant steak. Once it came out, perfectly charred and tender, I knew we'd have no trouble.
This steak gave Argentinian beef a run for its money. Tender, incredibly juicy, and with a perfect sear on the outside, this steak was delicious. Very little fat meant we got about 700 grams of beef, and by the time we were done we could barely move. It's one of those "must-eat" dishes when in Florence.
Oh, the gelato. Whereas in the US it’s easy to find a Starbucks on every corner, in Italy there’s a gelato shop on every corner. They LOVE their gelato, and we agreed. We tried every major gelato shop wherever we went, and ultimately deemed Florence as having the best gelato in Italy. We were also told the secret to figuring out if a gelato shop is legit – look to the pistachio. If the pistachio gelato is bright green, then turn around and walk out. If it’s more of a brownish olivey green then the place is legit. Additionally, if the gelato is displayed in metal containers then it’s probably homemade. With those tips in mind we made it our mission to find the top gelato spot in every city we visited. At gelato’clock we’d order the two flavor “piccolo” so we could often try several different gelaterias throughout the day without worrying as much about not being able to fit into our clothes after a month. Strategies, people.
L’Antica Pizzeria de Michele – Naples
During our Italy month we sampled pizza at about a dozen places, but this was easily the best. In fact, it was so good that we took a 45 minute train ride from Pompeii just to get the pizza a second time. Opened in 1870 in the birthplace of pizza, L’Antica de Michele looks like it hasn't been changed in 100 years. The tables and chairs are simple, décor consists of menus on the walls and old photos, and the waiters wear white aprons and are a little surly. They do two kinds of pizza – marinara and margarita (you can also get the margarita with double cheese). No toppings, no substitutions, just perfect pies. The dough is fluffy, the sauce is fresh, and the cheese is gooey. There’s usually a line out the door, but it moves fast since the pizzas come out less than 5 minutes after they are ordered. This was one place where we didn’t have to be shamed into eating a whole pie each!
Gelateria la Carraia – Florence
At first glance it would be easy to write this spot off as a tourist trap. It’s right near the Ponte Vecchio, gleams like it’s brand new, and has a line of tourist-looking folks out the door. But we had read great things about this gelateria and as we got closer to the line we realized everyone was speaking Italian. Once inside we found out what the hub-bub was about. With delicious perfect examples of gelato staples like pistachio and nocciola as well as a caramel to die for and a cheesecake that was incredible, this is a can’t-miss spot in Florence. After tasting the gelato here we understood why there was a giant line at all hours of the day.
- Stuffed sausage at Masseria Il Frantoia, Ostuni (Puglia)
- Lemon Meatballs at Trattoria da Teo, Rome
- Vongole at La Veccia Taverna, Monopoli (Puglia)
The stuffed sausage was the highlight of our tasting meal at the Masseria. Homemade sausage split down the middle and filled with homemade cheese, then seared on both sides. It made for a succulent, spicy, and crispy departure from the seafood we had eaten at almost every meal in Puglia. Combined with a delicious Puglian red that was bottled only a few miles from the Masseria, we had one of the best dishes not only in Italy but on the whole trip.
We took a flyer on the Lemon Meatballs on one of our first nights in Italy. This was another case of the waiter pushing more and more food on us. Carrie had ordered the pasta amitriciana and I had ordered the bolognese, and we were planning on splitting the artichoke appetizer. When the waiter came over and took our order, he stared at us after we ordered the pastas, and said "That's IT?!". Flustered, I blurted out “aaaand the Lemon Meatballs” since we had discussed that as an option to split too. We were glad we ordered it! The meatballs themselves were incredibly light and pillowy, gently bathed in a lemon butter sauce. When it first came out we were wary – where’s the red sauce? But after tasting the absolutely perfect balls of meat, we realized there was no need for tomato sauce. Although it probably isn’t too hard to get the sauce right, I have a feeling if we tried to make these at home the meatballs wouldn’t come out nearly as light as the masterful chef at da Teo made them. Simply perfect.
Last, but certainly not least, was what we were calling “Vito’s Vongole”. Vito is the genial owner/waiter/maitre’d/chef at La Veccia Taverna. Since Monopoli is known for seafood, and his restaurant was one of the top seafood spots in Monopoli, we knew we had to go. Although everything we had that night was outstanding, the vongole was especially good. A MASSIVE plate of fresh-from-the-sea clams were smothered in a mixture of oil, oregano, garlic, along with some sliced onions and fennel to make one of the most delicious seafood appetizers we had. The sauce was so creamy and delicious we assumed there MUST be butter in it, but when we asked Vito he looked at us funny, then said (in his broken English) “no butter, no no NO. Olive oil, garlic, oregano. Fee-neesh.”
That's the Italia food wrap-up. We want to go back and eat it all over again. I could easily fee-neesh every bite!