I ate. With an abandon I hadn’t allowed myself in years. Mostly at people’s houses, experiencing a mix of the traditional and the new, but also at some restaurants – Italy has moved forward from the trattorias of old (that still exist and, especially in Rome, are mostly good), and the new food scene, with sleek and modernist establishments borrowing in look and fare from both Northern Europe and the USA, is vital and interesting. Because Italians will never be able to eradicate their culinary roots, with a maniacal attention to provenance and ingredients, the end result is worth seeking. These are places that caught my palate and left me wanting for more.
One. Santi, Sebastiano e Valentino. Rome. Traditional fare in Rome is plentiful, mostly excellent and cheap, compared to the rest of Italy. This place is different. This restaurant started as a bakery and then opened up to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tucked away in a little street in the Salario neighbourhood, it wouldn’t look out of place in Brooklyn or Hollywood. Their main focus is bread: made with natural starters, it surpasses its Californian cousins. Many different flours are used, all from small mills, and most of the ingredients come from Lazio or nearby regions: eggs from a small, organic farmer; jams that is not mass-produced. I ate a rye and apple bread that was so incredible I pretty much ingested the whole loaf before I got to my sister’s house (two blocks away). Go for breakfast, and you will experience the best croissants I have had in years. They will also serve you an American style breakfast, with wilted chicory on the side.
Two. Ranzani 13. Bologna. I had to include pizza. Just because. Pizza has evolved too and it’s not uncommon to find dough made with natural starters. This place is not what a tourist would expect or seek if visiting Bologna. First of all, it’s a bit outside the city centre, in a semi-residential and industrial area. Not far from some university faculties, its large rooms are populated by students and residents alike, all congregating for the very good, Neapolitan style pizza (they only make a few varieties, not one of those endless pizza menus) and the staggering assortments of artisanal beers. The service is immensely friendly and fun.
Three. Pane Vino e San Daniele. Venice. Eating in Venice can be a hit and miss. Mostly a miss. If there is one city where restaurateurs take advantage of tourists, Venice is it. As a regular of 10 years, I have now my favorite places, invariably far from the S. Marco area. I rent an apartment on the Dorsoduro sestriere but, somehow, I never tried this trattoria around the corner from Campo S. Barnaba before. I staggered in one day late, at lunch. An immensely plump Venetian woman was eating alone and I asked her what she was eating. “Have the mushrooms”. While she went on to eat a three course meal (and asked for two more sides of mushrooms), I had a black squid ink tagliolini with mushrooms and shrimp. Out of this world. So good, that my next table dining companion felt the need to taste them. First time I had a stranger dip her fork in one of my dishes. Amazing service (another hit and miss in Venice), with many rounds of grappa gifted at the end of the meal.
Four. Osteria del Campiello al remer. Venice. A Venetian friend took me here. While right by Canal Grande, it is hard to find, set under an arch in a small campo. Remer means to row in Venetian, and the restaurant is inside a centuries-old workshop where oars were made by hand. The place is charming, they have live music but the fish I ate was spectacular. Excellent cocktails too. Perfect for a romantic date.
Five. Pasticceria Tonolo. Venice. This unassuming cake shop has been on my list since I discovered it many moons ago. Go at Carnival for the fried cakes. Go for the French-style pastries. Best of all, do what Venetians do. Go when they open at 7:45 am on a weekday and line up with the locals already outside. Stand at the counter (there is no seating) and order a cappuccino and either a custard donut or a custard croissant. Then have a second. Don’t be daunted by the crowds. The counter, run by three female old-timers, is super efficient.