Read an Excerpt
If you do not intend to read the introduction, here, in brief, is what you can expect to find in this book.
The book contains a personal selection of about one hundred eating and drinking places in central Rome, Florence, and Venice. The emphasis is on traditional food and drink, and the main type of establishment listed is the trattoria, though some wine bars, restaurants, and other types are included for various reasons. The organization is alphabetical within each city.
Each city section begins with a brief introduction to the local food scene and listing of principal classic local menu items. An extensive glossary of food terms at the end of the book provides additional information; most italicized terms are contained therein.
Each entry contains:
- the restaurant's complete address and phone number (don't forget to dial the area code even locally) and, where available, fax, e-mail, and website
- weekly closing day and, where possible, approximate vacation dates
- nearby landmarks and other geographical information
- credit card information
- type of establishment
- type of cuisine
- price range
As generally defined, a trattoria is a small, informal, usually family-run establishment serving complete meals, which, until recent years, represented the traditional home cooking of a specific geographical area. The geographical scope may range from neighborhood to region (in the strict sense of one of the twenty political divisions of Italy). The establishment need not be located in the area whose food it serves (you can find Tuscan trattorias allover Italy), but it usually is.
The differences between the Italian trattoria and the Italian ristorante are mostly of degree. Both are sit-down eating places. In both groups, with some notable exceptions, the best ones tend to be small, family-run operations; in a trattoria, all hands may be related by blood or marriage, while a ristorante will probably have more hired help. Both may serve traditional local or regional cooking; and both may use starched white napkins and tablecloths. The ristorante may not always use stemware and porcelain, but it is usually fancier and more expensive. The ristorante is more likely to extend the boundaries of its menu beyond the traditional dishes of the immediate geographical area, of the trattoria six blocks away, or across town, but you will eat better in your trattoria because it is yours. To an extent, that is not just theory, but it is truer today in the peripheral areas of the cities, where most people make their homes, than in the centro storico, where businesses, tourists, and impossible rents have forced families out.
Many Italians who look back on coming home from school to a hot lunch prepared by their Mamma remember their youthful exasperation at eating the same meal day in, day out. And so it is in the true trattoria. The repertoire is small, the menu finite. You go there for comfort, not for thrills. I probably shouldn't say this, but you might get bored. So, if you are spending several days in Italy and plan to eat out, you have three choices, all equally "authentic." Many Italians use each approach at different times.
The conservative approach consists of developing a relationship with a trattoria by returning repeatedly and letting your gastronomic adventures run the gamut from, say, spaghetti alla carbonara to bucatini all' amatriciana, or from ribollita to pappa al pomodoro, or from fegato alla veneziana to, well, fegato alla veneziana. You will probably save money and enjoy an illusion of the so-called real Italy, assuming it exists. Not all Italians are gourmets; many go out to a trattoria, or pizzeria, per stare insieme -- "to be together" -- with friends or relatives, with absolute quality far less important than a simpatico setting and a democratic price.
The more aggressive approach requires comparative analysis of Italian and English-language guidebooks, advice from local friends, and a fair amount of experimentation to choose places that, you hope, offer not just traditional food but the definitive version -- that elusive taste somebody's great-grandmother, who never left the kitchen except to go to church, may once have achieved.
The third approach to eating out pretty much shuns tradition altogether and seeks the hew. It tends to be the choice of those locals who regard trattorias as providing poor imitations of the food they prepare at home.
Discriminating foreign visitors will probably choose a modified conservative approach and will be happy to settle for the restaurant version of grandmother food. This is why so many good traditional restaurants sometimes seem full of foreigners. But for visiting foreigners, who quite rightly want the true tastes of Italy -- grandmother food -- the conservative approach has more appeal than it does for local foodies, who undoubtedly make better carbonara at home than they can get in a trattoria. Such locals eat out when they want something different, maybe even international or at least interregional -- not grandmother food.