Your Informal Guide To Eating Italy
Italy is renowned for its history, people and, of course, food. Anyone who ventures to this Mediterranean jewel has, in some way, been changed. There’s something magical in the air, whether it’s the sea air, the scent of olives being pressed or the actual weather, Italy will burrow its way into your heart leaving you feeling empty in body and soul as soon as you leave it.
You could spend an eternity here eating and drinking and strolling around. People have been doing it for thousands of years. For the sake of brevity, we decided to choose only 3 cities to explore. We married our talents for taste (Chef Kev) and research (myself) to amble around Bologna, Florence and Rome, cities that also belong to distinct regions in Italy.
Before we hopped on the plane, we had no idea that Italy wasn’t an official country until 1946. Before that it was a kingdom of regions that united in 1861 to form a nation-state. It was a tough feat to get so many different regions on the same page. Rome didn’t even join in until 1870, making that the official year that all parts were brought together. Because the unification was so recent, much like other countries and nation-states, regions seem to have a culture of their own. Inherently, you know you are still in Italy because of the language and some repeated ingredients, but each city seemed to have its own nuances, despite being only a few hours away by train.
You could spend an eternity here eating and drinking and strolling around.
We started our journey in Bologna, the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s medieval, it’s lively and it’s quaint. Even though it boasts a population size of a small city, the vibe is one of a bustling metropolis. Hundred if not thousands of people are moving around the streets, and, thankfully, most of them are not tourists. They are locals, workers, everyday men and women who eek out the good life.
The city is famously referred to as “La Grassa”, or the fat one, and for good reason. Everywhere you turn there is a wood-fire pizza oven, tiny tortellinis, or some kind of cured meat slung from the rafters. It is the city that has made mortadella famous, that pressed pink pig meat that is likened to the exponentially inferior processed packaged thing we call bologna back home. In the city of Bologna, food is king.
Being foreigners with one or two Italian phrases on hand, we decided to go on a food tour with a local. The beginning of the tour may have started a bit shaky, our guide was possibly tired, probably overworked from moonlighting as a local guide. In the medieval quarter, we tucked into Salumeria Simoni for cured meats and Lambrusco — a sparkling red wine that will keep you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. We finished the night at Osteria del Sole, the city’s oldest pub dating back to 1465. There, after copious amounts of Pignoletto — the sparkling white alternative — you can hover over the in-floor latrine, a fixture that seems as old as the walls.
We ventured off on our own for the rest of the time in this Mecca of meat. We were told the Osteria dell’Orsa was a local favourite, but it’s usually difficult to secure a table. They don’t take reservations, or at least that’s what we were told, but we could put our name down on a list and wait at the Jukebox Café next door, swigging back Old Fashions like they were going out of style. A few tipples later and we sat, canteen style in one of the busiest osterias in the city centre. We ate a pasta bolognese sauce, because when in Bologna, and some other monstrous bruschetta type plate of bread topped with mortadella and buffala mozarella. Bellies full and brains a little fuzzy, we waddled the few blocks back to our apartment and fell asleep contently, like life had meaning again.
For the remaining days we ate, we drank teeny tiny coffees and we ate some more. On our gastronomical journey, we discovered that not only is mortadella and ragú, or bolognese sauce, big things in Bologna, but that tortellini held a large place in the heart of the people. In certain months of the year, it is common to eat tortellini in brodo, or broth. Other months, it is served with a sauce and either way is just as tempting. Gelato is delicious and ubiquitous and the pizzas are freshly made with some of the most striking tomatoes I have ever seen. You know the soil is good when a tomato is plump, red and juicy.
Homemade black truffle tortellini was one of the highlights of the whole trip and we ate it in Bologna at Trattoria Pizzeria Belle Arti. It’s worth mentioning that the exterior is empty, almost uninviting because of the lack of diners, but it isn’t until you make your way past the pizza oven into the covered patio that you find dozens of families snacking away and celebrating 90-something birthdays.
From Bologna, we headed to Florence, a romantic location filled with noteworthy architecture and home to some of the biggest Italian Renaissance works from Da Vinci, Michelangelo and the piece everyone talks about, Boticelli’s, Birth of Venus. If you don’t know who these artists are, that’s totally fine. You can still appreciate the impressive works throughout the city from every angle and in every square.
Florence was the cultural hub during the Italian Renaissance. Walking through the winding side streets stirs a sense of post-Medieval romanticism. Sitting with a beverage, contemplating beauty transports you away from the throngs of tourists. And, as you sit there you wonder, what is there to eat?
Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or a Florentine steak, is one way to satiate any exhausted wanderer. It’s ordered based on the weight and whether you will be sharing this mammoth T-bone. No point in telling the server how you would like it done, as it comes out as it’s supposed to be, most probably rare. The best place for a traditional Florentine steak would be Sostanza, close to the centre of the city. It’s decorated old school but the service is impeccable. And if you need to hop to the loo, you can graze past the chefs as they blaze up the steaks. It’s one of those places that is well known but feels like it’s off the beaten path. All together — the food, the atmosphere and of course the wine — it is a winning recipe.
We stayed on the outskirts of the city centre and, not much to our surprise, we found an amazing pizza place that looks like it’s part of the community club. Down a back street and through a parking lot, you will find Il Poggetto and they make some of the best pizzas perfectly paired with a few local, craft beers. It was the perfect place to have a few early sips and nibbles, then head back to our place for a solid rest.
One bar that I loved was Enoteca Bellini in the city centre. It held a cozy atmosphere for any afternoon or early evening cocktail. You could order a few snacks, but the large city vibe in a tight, intimate space made me feel like I was walking into a trendy bar in New York or London.
We didn’t stay long in Florence and we definitely could have. It is on the list of places to revisit, if not for the food and drink then absolutely for the art and culture.
Rome wasn’t meant to be a long stay, but it ended up being one of the longest jaunts we had. It wasn’t just that the city had everything that you would ever need — it had so much history, food and stunning architecture. However, upon researching a few areas we were supposed to cover in Italy, we found out that it could be too sketchy to venture to certain cities. We decided to fly out of Rome instead and for that I am so grateful.
Rome is a captivating place. If you come from the new world, which I do, it will make your jaw drop that buildings and whole cities from over 2,000 years ago are still standing. And despite the amount of history around every corner, Rome is still a modern city with elements of multiculturalism. While there, since we arrived from rural living, we decided to partake in a few restaurants with flavours that hailed from Asia. Our first stop was at Dumpling Bar in the Portuense neighbourhood, nestled in between the famous-for-its-nightlife Trastavere and up-and-coming Ostiense neighbourhoods. Although you regularly need a reservation for this bustling dumpling bar, they said they could serve us for a quick bite before the bookings started to pile in. Some dumplings were packed with pork, others filled with broth, but every dumpling was a burst of flavour and the informal vibe made for an extremely comfortable setting.
As if dumplings weren’t enough, the craving for ramen was also strong. We hadn’t eaten good ramen for a year and we decided to take a spin around the city to find the best one. Bar Ramen Akira in the Ostiense neighbourhood offered an approachable ramen and after a few beers in the bar next door, it was exactly the amount of electrolytes we needed to feel deeply satiated. Bar Ramen Akira was where we found many locals enjoying the bone-brothy flavours of a distant land, something that you often see in global cities.
We ended up in Rome for eight nights and in three different apartments. Although it was hectic unpacking and repacking, we got to experience different neighbourhoods in a whirlwind. From Portuense, we moved up into Trastavere to see what all the hype was about. And, although the nightlife is filled with tourists and the noise level echoes off ancient Roman walls, the neighbourhood offered a heck of a lot in terms of food and drink. A well known favourite seemed to be the Prosciutteria. Now boasting multiple locations, this place feels like you stepped back into the way Italy probably was decades ago. A whole porchetta lay on the chopping block for anyone who wanted to grab a quick sandwich, cured meats hung from the ceiling and, of course, there were copious amounts of wine. It was the kind of place you went to in the afternoon after a long day of strolling around the back alleyways.
For a main meal, which usually doesn’t really kick off until after 8PM, we went to La Boticella, tucked away on one of the back alleys of Trastavere. We walked in around 7PM, around the time it opened, and no one was in there except one server and a lady around my mom’s age. Unsure about whether the quality of food would be up to standard, we tucked into a small table anyways and decided to give it a chance. In the back you could hear the lady ordering our meals in an authoritative way. She seemed to be running the show with gusto, despite the lack of people actually eating there. And as we dug into our mains the people started pouring in. They were mostly tourists, but obviously this restaurant had worked up a reputation for authenticity and taste. The portions were what you expect from a motherly boss lady, heaping and brimming with flavour. With the ability to only finish half our meals, she came over and told us to eat more. She said to use our hands, to get right in there and eat everything. Not wanting to offend or to let a delicious meal go to waste, we bargained with her and asked for take away containers. Bellies full, we rolled back to our apartment and soundly slumbered.
The competition for tourist attention is fierce and sometimes what the tourist wants isn’t what’s necessarily good.
While in Rome, we had to try the pizza, if only to compare. Dar Poeta offered bang on slices and whole pizzas with a huge selection of styles. Also an informal atmosphere, laidback and reasonably priced, it was one of those places that we went to more than once. The crust had the perfect chew and the ingredients were incredibly fresh.
Across the River Tiber in the Parione neighbourhood, tourist attractions are ubiquitous. Even though it’s tough to find off the beaten path places to indulge, it doesn’t take away from amount of restaurants that there are to choose from. Wisdomless was across the street from our apartment. It’s a tattoo parlour/bar/club that offered a wide array of modern cocktails for the discerning drinker. Leather couches, 1930s decor and beards abound, it felt like we had walked into a speakeasy. And, although it gives off that vibe, the venue also boasts some classical religious artwork. The mix helped remind us that we were still in Rome. It became our local for the span of three days as we got cozy over Old Fashions and gimlets.
There were more places to discover and some restaurants were disappointing, but that’s what you get when you are in a city. The competition for tourist attention is fierce and sometimes what the tourist wants isn’t what’s necessarily good.
To end off on a high note, we had one of our last meals in the beautifully set Virginiae. We decided to go all out and order meat and wine, with more meat and more wine. I don’t know if it was the quality of food or the uplift from the drink, but within a few moments I broke my knife. Praised as a strong young lady, the server brought me another one and we finished our meal with delight and a bit of sadness. Our trip was coming to an end.
For those last moments, we reflected on how much we had eaten and seen. We were greeted with smiles and a distinct warmth that radiated from the people. And although Italy has experienced many political problems in the past and present, it seems that they haven’t lost their love for the stuff that brings people together. There were some amazing meals and only some that were disappointing. But everywhere we went, we were met with grace, hospitality and a genuine love for food. We drank wine and espresso until our livers begged for a break. We topped ourselves off with enough carbohydrates for a few years to come. We came, we saw and we were conquered. Until we meet again, Italy. Cin cin.