Sunday, September 20, 2009

Our worst meal in Italy and learning how to eat well

As with much of our vacation, our first day in Italy was spent wandering around in search of good places to eat. I had spent a lot of time combing through the New York Times food review archives, message boards on Chow Hound and other foodie forums, and other websites to compile a list of places to eat in Italy and, from this long list of options, I was sure that the only problem we would run into would be a good problem. Of all the fine restaurants to choose from, where would we eat? This may have been the case if we were looking around on a Friday night in June, but it was a Monday night in August. It turns out most of the good restaurants shut down for the month (or at leas the last two weeks) of August, and those that remained open don't operate on Mondays. What we were left with, then, were the tourist restaurants. And, in fact, while these places do claim to serve food, I hesitate to call them restaurants. The place we ended up eating at was really just an embarassment to the country of Italy and to the whole concept of restaurants in general. The food made Olive Garden look good, and the sad thing was, this place had some of the better looking food of all the places we went to. The most tragic thing about all of this is that this is the type of crap that many tourists to Italy end up eating when they visit the country. Every tourist venue is surrounded with these restaurants that have menus in fifty languages, are packed with tourists, and serve up poorly prepared versions of Italian classics that use only the worst ingredients that money can buy. I suppose this makes sense, though. Serving a tourist is a single period game. Restaurants that are well located can catch all sorts of stray tourists, and they know that these tourists will never come back. The type of tourist that typically eats at these restaurants isn't going to go off and write a scathing online review, and they certainly aren't going to be reading such reviews even if they did exist. Locals wouldn't be caught dead eating at these places, so there is absolutely no incentive to produce food that is good enough to bring customers back. All you want to do is make food as cheaply and quickly as possible so you can rake in that tourist money. And, all the while, the customers are sitting there thinking "Hey! I'm in Italy eating real Italian food. This is just like the Olive Garden. I love that place!" Ugghh.

So, the lessons learned from all of this are: 1) If you expect to eat well on a Monday evening in late August, plan ahead and make sure your place is open, 2) don't eat near tourist attractions. In general, there is an inverse relationship between food quality and tourist density.

The most important lesson was not learned until a few days later, but, this is important and really all you need to know to eat well in Italy. FOLLOW THE SNAILS.
There is an organization, founded by a group of foodies in Italy, called Slow Food, that is dedicated to the preservation of traditional ways of cooking. While it started in Italy, it has become a global presence in the food world. Among other things, this organization reviews restaurants and if the editors believe that a restaurant does an exemplary job preparing and presenting regional Italian food, they will include it in an annual publication. If you are planning a trip to Italy, buy this book. It will be one of the best investments you'll make.* Restaurants that receive the Slow Food stamp of approval display a sticker in their window with a little snail on it. If you follow these snails, you will never ever eat a bad meal. It is worth noting that if you want super fancy modern cuisine, you probably won't find it in the Slow Food guide. This is the resource for simpler, traditional fare. But isn't that what you want on a vacation to Italy? If you want high end, consult the Michelin guide.

Once we started following the snails and eating at Slow Food approved restaurants, the quality of our eating picked up considerably. While you can get some great recommendations from food critics and fellow travelers on websites and message boards, that's time consuming and the quality control is questionable. Sure, someone may have written a review of a great restaurant they went to in Rome, but how do you are they know how it compares? A tourist can only eat at so many restaurants, so if they say, "This place is the best," they are really saying "Of the thousands of restaurants in Rome, I ate at five and this was the best of those five." The Slow Food editors have a bit more perspective. They eat at more restaurants and they have a better sense of the history of the food in a region. Just as important, though, is the fact that you can just get this book and be done with it. You don't have to spend hours collecting random recommendations from strangers. Instead, when you get hungry, just open up the book and see whats nearby.

*In addition to the Slow Food book, I would recommend that any iPhone users purchase the international data plan when they travel to Italy. The streets here are poorly marked, rarely straight, and always confusing. The iPhone map and compass are awesome for navigating cities like this. Want to find out how to get somewhere? Open up the iPhone map, search for your destination, and it will plot out your course. In the middle of a piazza and don't know which way to start walking? Just turn on the compass function and it will set you in the right direction. It really is an amazing travel tool.

**The picture at the top is not of the horrible restaurant we ate at...I just need a picture of neon restaurant signs.

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