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OPINION: Italy's historic trattorias need support before they are lost forever

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
OPINION: Italy's historic trattorias need support before they are lost forever
Should the Italian state step in to save Italy's historical trattorias? Photo by Stefano Vigorelli on Unsplash

Italy's oldest inns, taverns and restaurants dating back to the Renaissance or even the Middle Ages should receive financial support from the Italian state or risk being shuttered forever, argues reporter Silvia Marchetti.

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Tourists flock to Italy partly to indulge in delicious iconic dishes. To make the most of their sightseeing, they tend to eat rather on the run in different restaurants and often they don’t go looking for the authentic, traditional spots adored by insiders and diners who hate crowds.

Eating is also a matter of culture and knowing the history behind the establishment in my view enhances the experience.

The Slowfood group sponsors Italy’s oldest trattorias and historical taverns. It makes a humongous effort to keep these places full of history running, trying to support and promote them more among holidaymakers and food lovers.

Trattorie storiche are among the world’s oldest restaurants dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (a few even have roots in ancient Rome) which are unknown to tourists craving for huge dishes of carbonara pasta rather than a gastronomical experience jolt or a yummy throwback.

READ ALSO: The ancient Roman foods Italians still eat

These places, usually off-the-beaten track and hard to find, are atypical museums. They’re not the usual, plain restaurants. They have a soul, character, and when you step inside you can feel at once an old-timey vibe.

A trattoria in Rome. Photo by Marco Calignano on Unsplash

Most used to be old postal stations where pilgrims and travellers ate and rested overnight with their horses; hiding spots where conspirators met; brothels; or just humble taverns and inns where blue-bloods would mingle with low-borns.

They’re packed with art, featuring frescoed walls, artistic designs, sculptures and antique furniture, and for all these reasons they should be more supported, including financially, by local authorities.

Though scattered across Italy, these trattorie storiche are mainly located in the north, mostly Veneto and Liguria.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale - or risk losing them forever

Given they have an historical value, most are owned by town halls; others by rich families who inherited the building. In both cases, the trattoria is often leased out to restaurateurs or entrepreneurs to manage and run.

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One of the most famous ones is Al Brindisi in Ferrara, open since the 12th century, which according to the Guinness Book of Records makes it the oldest tavern in the world. It's said this is the place where one night the astrologist Copernicus, drunk, figured out the sun was at the center of the universe.

Venice’s Osteria Antico Dolo in the 1400’s was a brothel later turned into a traditional bacaro (aperitivo bar) eatery. Its specialty has always been tripe with different types of offal.

In Rome La Campana first opened in the 1500’s as a winery and then an inn for travellers and pilgrims coming to see the Pope. It’s the Eternal City’s oldest restaurant.

Another interesting one is Albergaccio Villa Machiavelli, an old postal station on Florence’s rolling hills popular during the Renaissance among wayfarers and bandits, where the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli went to get drunk in the company of prostitutes and gamblers.

A trattoria in Venice. Photo by Marialaura Gionfriddo on Unsplash

The ‘devilish’ statesman lived in the next-door mansion and would sneak into the trattoria through an underground tunnel, scared to be seen.

The trouble is that many trattorias in time tend to fall into oblivion, as few people agree to manage them due to the high maintenance costs. If a fresco peels off, it may cost tens of thousands of euros to have it fixed.

I had the luck a few years ago of dining at Al Cavallino Rosso, a former medieval inn located in Treviso, which has been shut since the pandemic. The former manager could no longer afford to pay the rent to the owner. It’s a pity. The place is stunning, full of frescoes of dancing drunk men and red horses on walls and ceilings.

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Tables were lined downstairs, while upstairs there were the rooms where travellers would sleep in the past. The manager had put in a bar serving great cocktails prepared with an infusion of Treviso’s radicchio and also a dance floor. Now there are just heaps of dust.

This establishment must reopen again so diners can be served, alongside succulent game dishes, a slice of history to taste. Food sector businessmen, chefs and restaurant managers could bring ‘lost’ trattorie storiche such as Al Cavallino Rosso back to life again.

There is so much more value in investing in historical taverns with a past than in opening brand new touristy eateries. Ancient taverns are culinary museums - food temples where ancient recipes and vibes survive. 

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Kris2024/03/01 02:27
As a frequent traveller to Italy, I would love to be able to access a comprehensive list of these old establishments in various cities. We are visiting Treviso in a couple of months and am disappointed Al Cavallino Rosso is closed, hopefully someone will get it back on its feet. La Campana in Rome is now on our list, so thank you for that.

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