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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities

Most international visitors to Italy's major cities are no doubt hoping to sample the country's famed culinary delights. But if you want to savor the best of real Italian cuisine you'll need to travel further afield, writes Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Want to eat well in Italy? Here’s why you should ditch the cities
Photo: Gabriel BOUYS/AFP

Friends visiting Rome often ask me which are the best places to eat alla Romana – aka, the traditional Roman way – and each time I find myself short of suggestions.

Restaurant names do pop into my head but none serve the real thing any longer, not even those in the picturesque old Trastevere neighborhood. 

It’s sad to say but the trattoria and hostaria, the typical Roman-style taverns, have almost disappeared. Surviving ones have retained just the white and red checkered tablecloths, wooden benches and paper napkins of the past.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

The truth is, if you want to eat like a real Roman you should ditch the Eternal City and head towards the many quaint villages that surround the capital, blending the pleasures of day-tripping and nature walks with savoring traditional recipes. 

Food in big cities has lost the authenticity and flavor of tradition which survives in the countryside, where housewives still make pasta by hand and use locally grown veggies and fruit and fresh dairy products. Food miles don’t exist. 

Italians love their fuori porta (‘out of the city walls’) weekends when they get to relax and detox in pristine valleys and sleepy villages, picking small-scale eateries. According to a recent survey, 91 percent of Italians prefer restaurants serving organic dishes with locally sourced ingredients. 

These establishments are often referred to as agriturismi, a type of tavern-farm also offering simple accommodation that has become even more popular in times of Covid.

There are good reasons why so many Italians flee from towns for a bite of genuine cuisine. Eating in big cities, especially in the historical center of Rome, is no longer such a pleasant experience – except of course if you’re a Michelin-starred amateur. I’m not saying all city places offer poor-quality food, just that the majority has degraded. 

A restaurant in Rome’s Trastevere. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

When I go for a walk near the Pantheon or Piazza Navona I can’t stand seeing photos of dishes displayed behind restaurant windows to lure customers in. The images of big fat plates of spaghetti all’Amatriciana and carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichokes) described in English on huge cardboard signs and shiny plastic posters are meant to make passers-by drool.

Even worse, recently I’ve seen real dishes cooked early in the morning or the day before, displayed like gruesome art installations at the entrance. They look gluey and smell terrible, almost on the verge of rotting. My stomach churns in disgust each time. 

Also, most tourist menus in Rome feature images of iconic Italian dishes adapted to foreign tastes. The cotoletta alla Milanese is drawn or photographed served inside a panino (Italian sandwich) like a hamburger. And to please American tourist kids bored with sightseeing, there are now even non-Italian ice-cream flavors such as Oreo, Mars and Smarties. 

READ ALSO: How to spot good quality gelato in Italy – and how to suss out the fakes

The same thing goes for Florence. Last time I visited and dined outdoors at the foot of the Duomo cathedral, the waiter said they didn’t have a menu written in Italian but made great spaghetti bolognese – which, by the way, doesn’t exist (the correct name is tagliatelle al ragù and it’s not a Florentine staple). My eyebrows raised and I left.

Meanwhile in Venice, several bistros serve slices of pizza baked the day before and reheated, yet advertised on billboards as ‘the original Neapolitan pizza’. This, as the name suggests, is best made in Naples and the Campania region. 

City restaurants should really stop showcasing food as bait because it kills the soul of Italian cuisine – which is what foreigners love. 

But if you escape the crowds, get outside big cities and explore ‘small-scale Italy’ you’ll easily be able to get a taste of home cooking.  For example, I recently toured Ciociaria, a wild patch of land south of Rome where shepherds and outlaws used to be the sole inhabitants. 

It’s a foodie heaven. Family-run dairy farms make fresh ricotta and super-tasty pecorino sheeps’ cheese each morning, and they’ve opened small taverns serving handmade bucatini pasta with wild boar sauce and porcini mushrooms fried in breadcrumbs.

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There are rare delicious vegetables with weird names I’d never heard, while the cured meats are seasoned in cellars. Sausages hang from ceiling hooks to dry. Bread is made in centuries-old mills, and ancient vineyards dating back to pre-Roman times have been recovered. 

Eating high-quality Italiano means also savoring the ‘slow food’ philosophy and the culinary knowledge handed down through generations. 

There’s also another key issue. Prices in rural areas are also very cheap when compared to those of cities. And with the plus point that you get to avoid the usual tourist rip-offs like paying 600 euros for lunch in a chic Roman restaurant or 42 euros for three ice-cream cones.

The last time I climbed the Spanish Steps the street drink vendors at the top wanted 6 euros for a half-liter bottle of water – and it wasn’t even cold. 

Overcharging tourists never pays off. It only debases the greatness and reputation of Italian food.

Member comments

  1. The article is spot on, but the disappearance of osterie and trattorie goes beyond Rome. These little family owned and operated gems are one of the greatest culinary traditions of Italy. Throughout the north, particularly in Piedmont, the traditional cucina piedmontese is disappearing at an alarming rate. Covid surely didn’t help. One has to go away from the wine areas, or up in the mountains since many of the popular long-time trattorie are now selling fancy versions of dishes like agnolotti and vitello tonnato at crazy prices. So sad that tourism–something they hoped the UNESCO designation would stimulate–is killing tradition. The cuisine of the poor has become that of the wealthy.

  2. I agree with everything in the article. Tourism has a lot to answer for. We live in Umbria for half the year (the other half in Australia). We do miss the variety of cuisines we are accustomed to in Australia. But having said that, I totally agree…those places with horrible gelatinous photos of “piatti tipici” should NOT be patronised. But there ARE so many great places out of the big centres that serve up wonderful simple food…., and they are not really that hard to find. Even in Firenze, if one gets off the tourist drag there are some wonderful “local” little places, serving simple, excellent and low priced food…as we discovered staying before there before Natale 2021. Check out the San Felice area…. but don’t tell too many people!!

  3. I’ve worked as a tour guide in Europe for thirty years. One awful practice that goes on in some of those overly touristic restaurants in Italy is the microwaving of frozen packaged pasta that has been bought straight from the supermarket. I’ve seen it happen first hand in a restaurant in Piazza Navona when I nipped inside to have an spritz. Italian colleagues have mentioned the practice to me before. I would never eat in a place that has photos of all the food on the menu. Thankfully however, there are some real gems around the cities as well, where the food is amazing.

  4. Inevitably, the same is true on Lake Como. On the southern lake there are a plethora of restaurants with the same menu producing generally average quality food. The menus never change, internal decor is often poor and much is geared to short term profit from tourists. There are few trattorie in the surrounding area but these can be very rustic in terms of choice.

    Before I came to Italy some seven years ago there was an article in a national UK newspaper entitled ‘The myth of Food in Italy’. I did not believe this at the time but my experience has confirmed the opinion. If I want a decent Pizza I go to London.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

A growing number of Italian destinations are bringing in rules aimed at controlling the summer crowds. Such measures often prove controversial - but they should go further, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Each summer, as tourists flock to Italy, the question of limiting crowds and ensuring sustainable travel comes up. Especially so with Covid.

Placing a threshold on the number of visitors to some of Italy’s top spots has a two-fold goal: that of preserving the artistic and cultural value of the site, and of preventing out-of-control mass tourism from leading to accidents.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which parts of Italy will get the most tourism this summer?

Proposed crowd-control measures usually raise eyebrows, but they shouldn’t. They’re a good way to balance sustainability, and existing rules should be extended to more hotspots.

The Cinque Terre park, known for its stunning hiking trails connecting the area’s cliffhanging fishing villages, has introduced summer tourist limits to preserve its delicate ecosystem. A few parts of the trails, like the Lovers Path connecting Manarola to Riomaggiore, are closed due to soil erosion and landslides.

Groups of no more than 15 hikers are allowed inside the Cinque Terre park in rotation, and there’s a cap of 200 available boat tickets for those preferring to admire the views comfortably from sea while bathing.

Liguria remains a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy this summer.

The Cinque Terre remain a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy, attracting huge crowds. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

Many locations across Italy are reverting to, or are considering, some kind of restricted access to offset high demand with ‘green’, safe travel. 

The Amalfi coast has a summertime limit on driving along the route connecting Positano to Vietri sul Mare to ease congestion, while a few years ago the mayor even banned tourist selfies to stop massive crowds of people invading the whitewashed alleys and sitting on brick walls.

There are currently strict limits on the number of people allowed to visit the Tuscan archipelago national park each summer, mainly the protected islands of Montecristo (uninhabited other than a caretaker), and the two prison islands of Gorgona and Pianosa (boasting a hotel run by inmates on probation). A maximum of 150-200 tourists are admitted annually to each of these isles.

You also need to move fast if you want to spend a weekend in Sardinia, touring its tropical-like baby powder beaches and paradise isles. The number of restrictions in place is on the rise.

On Budelli island, the pearl of the La Maddalena archipelago, other than the pink coral beach, the Cavalieri beach is also now totally off limits, meaning landing on the entire island is forbidden.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

The beaches of Lu Impostu and Brandinchi along San Teodoro’s coast will allow just 1500 and 3300 sunbathers each, while Stintino’s popular La Pelosa beach allows 1500, making tourists pay €3.50 per day and wear a yellow bracelet for identification.

The paradise archipelago of La Maddalena is seeing more tourist restrictions imposed. Photo by Leon Rohrwild on Unsplash

The abandoned former prison island of Santo Stefano, off Rome’s coast, which is part of a protected marine park brimming with barracudas and groupers, is currently undergoing a transformation into an open-air museum with a tiny hostel. Project managers have already pledged daily tourism will be “contained”’ to preserve the unique habitat.

In the mountains too, authorities are eyeing tougher limits. At Lago di Braies in the Dolomites, 14 tourists recently fell into the freezing water trying to take awesome, but silly, selfies of their acrobatic skills despite warning signs.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

In my view, all of Italy’s tourist hotspots should have some kind of regulation and police patrols, including top city highlights like the Trevi Fountain, Florence’s Duomo, and Venice, which in fact is expected to become Italy’s first city with a tourist limit from January 2023. People will have to book and buy a special pass to see the canals, bridges and piazzas.

If Venice succeeds in doing this, then it will show other cities that they too can control access to at least their biggest hotspots.

In Rome, the Pantheon has done a great job in introducing mandatory (but free) reservations on weekends, putting a stop to visitors just stepping inside to take a peek.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

The Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona and especially Piazza di Spagna should be more heavily patrolled, and Rome authorities should really consider a set tourist limit.

But just the idea is controversial, seen as a no-no depriving tourists of the thrill of throwing coins inside Rome’s iconic fountain to make a wish.

The Trevi fountain in Rome attracts a constant stream of tourists. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

There is a constant, sterile discussion within the city council and the national arts department on tougher regulations and limited entrances to Rome’s main sites.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini is pushing for a more sustainable ‘fountain experience’ that limits crowds and prevents heat-struck visitors from diving inside. He recently argued that allowing “1,000 or 100,000 visitors in front of the Trevi fountain” puts both them and the masterpiece at risk.

Ugly red tape, orange nets and rusty fences are occasionally placed around the Trevi Fountain without much of an outcome.

There are architectural barriers to stop people from sitting on the edges and dangling their feet inside the water at Fontana delle Tartarughe and Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, but it’s not enough. 

Setting a daily cap on visitors is the best solution; even better than introducing a ticketing system, because any tourist, once in the Eternal City, would pay to get in, and it would not be fair to discriminate based on money.

After all, if Italian universities can restrict enrollment for medical students, when new doctors are vital during Covid, I see no reason why tourist attractions can’t set limits when their own survival is at stake.

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