Continuing with the November theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ is Reason Eight–Slow Food.
When you arrive in Italy, it’s time to slow down and enjoy the wide variety of culinary delights. Although there is always the option of a four course meal for lunch or dinner, it’s up to you. Order one plate or several and savor the fresh and local cuisine. You have the table for as long as you want—that’s why you must always request the check, il conto, because only the diner decides when it’s time to move on.
The Slow Food Movement started in Italy. It was in the early 80s when Carlo Petrini and other friends first talked about ways to preserve the culinary traditions of their country. When McDonald’s decided to open a franchise near the Spanish Steps in Rome, the group became more active and the movement found a name—Slow Food . Since those early years, the movement has expanded its scope and gone international.
Thankfully, the traditions of Italian cooking have a growing audience in Italy and throughout the world. And luckily, for those of us who travel to Italy, most offerings are fresh and local. Italian restaurants rarely boast about serving these fresh and local products. This is just the norm in any good restaurant—large or small. At first I was disappointed when I couldn’t order my favorite salad, the Caprese one cold spring day. But, it was too early—and the tomatoes and basil weren’t in season—so any decent Italian restaurant won’t have it on the menu.
I rarely find my way into a Michelin Star restaurant, but I’ve had some fantastic meals. After traveling in Italy a few times, this is what I’ve learned…
Look for the chalkboard menu that changes daily. This means that the menu adapts to what is fresh and local. It doesn’t always guarantee a great meal—but it’s a start.
Avoid restaurants that have four or five menus in several languages and a long list of items. These restaurants are usually found close to popular tourist sites and will often be mediocre.
Look for fatta a mano or fatta in casa on the menu. This means that the pasta is made in-house.
Find Pizza al forno di legno for a wood-fired pizza. It doesn’t have to be wood-fired, but this is a very tasty traditional method that you don’t want to miss.
Save the cost of an expensive meal by trying an upscale restaurant for lunch. In the region of Emilia Romagna, we stumbled upon the Michelin starred Caffè Arti e Mestieri during lunch hour. They offered a “fast lunch” special for the business crowd that was a delicious and generous one course meal at a bargain.
Be sure to visit the local cheese shops or even a caseificio where you can see how cheeses are made. You will find a wide variety of cheeses that we never see in the U.S. Even the familiar names such as Mozzarella or Pecorino are very different in Italy. You’ll be able to find many more stages of aged cheeses and fresher varieties such as Mozzarella di Bufala, Burrata and fresh Ricotta.
Read some Food Blogs (see my favorites on the right sidebar) before you visit Italy. These will talk about the newer, up and coming chefs that are doing creative things with traditional dishes using fresh and local ingredients.
Each region of Italy is known for their particular specialties. If you don’t recognize something on a menu—ask about it. It may be an exciting new pasta, vegetable, fruit or cheese experience for you. Ask for a recommendation, too. Often, the dish of the day will feature a seasonal specialty.
Take a food and wine tour or a cooking class. You don’t have to commit your entire visit to a tour. There are lots of daily culinary tours offered in each region. This gives you an opportunity to visit wineries and farms—and the producers of some wonderful products such as olive oil, cheese and vinegar.
Thanks to some committed Italians, the Slow Food Movement continues to influence how we eat. And in Italy, where they have helped to preserve so many important culinary traditions, we can enjoy the fruits of their labors. It’s never hard to find a place where “si mangia bene” —one eats well, when traveling throughout Italy.