Eating in Italy

Going away for three weeks to Italy is as close to heaven as this atheist can contemplate. But I’ve inevitably returned to an enormous backlog of work. The enforced three-week hiatus from Davos Newbies has also left me with a surfeit of blogging ideas that I’ll try to dribble out in the interstices between getting real work done.

Unsurprisingly in the food-obsessed Bay Area, the first question a colleague in my office asked me today was, “What was the most memorable meal you had in Italy?” I had an answer, but the question wasn’t that easy. It’s possible to eat wonderfully well in Italy, but the general standard is, truth to tell, just OK (and I’m not an Italy novice: I’ve traveled there many times and I lived in Italy in 1989-90 for a year). My wife reckons we’ve becomed spoiled since we moved to Berkeley, and she may well be right. The general standard here is truly exceptional: great local ingredients, caring chefs, intelligent restaurateurs.

So where did we eat memorable meals. I’d count four occasions. First, in Rome we ate at Trattoria Monti, which The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni writes about near-obsessively. We reserved a table, which was a good thing since during our meal there were a half dozen parties who arrived, only to be turned away. Some were Italian, but most were – to my keen eye – obvious NYT-reading Americans. Monti is very much a neighborhood restaurant in Rome, but it has prospered on Bruni’s enthusiasm. We ate well, and the atmosphere was wonderful, but I think it rated fourth out of our meals worth counting.

Third place must go to La Grotta in Orvieto. We didn’t find La Grotta in any of our guide books. Instead, it was recommended by the owner of the best paper shop in Orvieto (who also invited my family to his studio to learn to make marbled paper, but that’s another great story). It’s an Orvietan equivalent of Monti – a solid, local restaurant – but I thought it had qualities that raised it well above the norm. My main course of pigeon was something I wouldn’t ordinarily eat, but pigeon is in some ways the Orvietan dish. If you take the tour of underground Orvieto, where you explore some of the caves cut into the volcanic rock on which the city is based, you see hundreds of pigeonholes cut into the rock hundreds of years ago. My pigeon wasn’t kept in a sub-Orvieto pigeonhole as far as I know, but it was excellent.

The two best meals were both in Venice, which is a slight irony, since Venice has one of the least respected culinary traditions in Italy. The first takes pride of place for setting. Altanella is marked by a non-descript door down an alley on the Giudecca, the largely neglected island that is the setting for Palladio’s masterpiece, Il Redentore. Walk through the humble restaurant and you arrive at a wonderfully picturesque terrace, overlooking a true backwater. For a first course I had an excellent spaghetti with anchovies. My children had the often-lauded gnocchi. My wife and I shared our main courses of grilled John Dory and grilled prawns with artichokes. The young signor Altanella gave us a postcard of the restaurant in a 1902 photograph, which is when his great-grandfather founded the trattoria. (Like Monti, Altanella is not a fresh discovery: it was apparently a François Mitterrand favorite.)

We lucked upon the final memorable meal on our last day in Venice, when we were all tired and sweltering in the heat. While my family went into an art gallery with things I didn’t like, I noticed a sign on the window asking people to inquire at the restaurant down the road if the owner wasn’t in. There aren’t many constants about the art world, but generally art people are discerning about their food. So I steered us into Osteria Oliva Nera for lunch. We didn’t eat much – a single plate each – but they were far and away the best food we had in Italy. My spaghettini alle vongole was to die for; my wife’s pasta with monkfish possibly even better. My children were unadventurous with their spaghetti al ragu (spag bol for the English), but it, too, was as good as it gets. Such superb simplicity doesn’t come cheap, certainly in Venice for dollar-poor tourists. But it was worth every euro.

Important addendum

My one exception to my downbeat verdict on most Italian food is Italian ice cream. As my wife will attest, I will not stint in my determination to find yet another gelateria to sample. I cannot conceive of a day in Italy without ice cream, preferably at least twice a day. Given the heat during our stay, I think my desires also reflected a real necessity to cool down.

So over a three-week period, which gelateria wins the Palme d’Or (or palma d’oro)? Unquestionably, it’s Pasqualetti in Orvieto. They pass the pistachio test fabulously (the best guide to the excellence of a gelateria), but I was knocked out by their amarena (wild cherry). As good a gelato as I’ve ever had. A quick Google of Pasqualetti reveals that they also have a shop in Rome, which is run by the daughter of grandmaster Giuseppe Pasqualetti.

4 thoughts on “Eating in Italy

  1. Chuck

    Your experience reflects a truth not generally known in the U.S. about Italians and they way they eat. For the most part, they eat simply – a primi, usually pasta, and a secondi, meat or fish, with a contorni, a salad or vegetable. The focus is on the fresh ingredients – nobody looks for stone fruit in January from Chile. So it’s not too surprising that the “best meal” in Rome to a Berkeley-honed, American palate was at a restaurant recommended by the NYT filled with Americans. There are many places like the one you loved in Venice. It’s just hard to find them.
    Next time you’re in Umbria, try Il Postale in Citta` di Costello. It was my memorable meal in a four-week visit.

  2. Lance Knobel

    I agree with you, Chuck (although I rate my palate more highly than it seems you do). Trattoria Monti wasn’t filled with Americans — I reckon it was about two-thirds Italian, one-third American.

    Bruni, who lived in Rome, recommends it because it became his favorite haunt in his neighborhood. Similarly, when I lived in Milan, my favorite was a place called Trattoria Masuelli. No menu — you asked the owner what was good that night and that’s what you chose.

    There are lots of places like Oliva Nera, but there are also lots and lots of places with so-so food. And they are patronized by Italians, not just tourists. That’s what I was trying to say.

  3. Pingback: Bookmarks about Italy

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