F LORENCE, Italy – I was sitting in a family-run restaurant, tucked away on a narrow cobblestone street in the capital of Tuscany, nearly finished with a bowl of Ribollita soup.
I’d been savoring each spoonful.
The beans for this soup were fed one by one into an empty potbellied wine bottle, then covered with water and flavored with hand-picked sage, fresh garlic, salt and peppercorns, and left to simmer in the dying embers of last night’s cooking fire. Local fresh black leaf kale and house-baked Tuscan bread give it additional body.
After three weeks of traveling throughout Italy, it was easy for me to see why Italian food is so popular. It is a peasant cuisine based on simple ingredients cooked by people with an awareness of tradition and a respect for quality.
It was also easy to see there’s no single defining dish. Italian fare consists of more than 20 different regional and local cuisines.
In northern Italy – including Milan, Verona and Venice – rice dishes, cheese sauces, and the use of polenta, butter and cream are prevalent. This is largely due to the cooler climate; olive trees and tomato plants are not grown in those areas. While Italy is a relatively small country – it’s about the size of Arizona – it has many different climate zones.
In Milan, bars and enoteche, or wine bars, start bustling at 6 p.m. That’s thanks to aperitivo, a northern Italian tradition commonly mislabeled as “happy hour.” It almost always includes an expansive buffet of meats, cheeses, marinated vegetables, breads and other items meant to whet your appetite. I particularly enjoyed aperitivi in the Navigli district, an area of large canals crossed with foot bridges and lined with restaurants, bars and clubs.
Famous Milanese main dishes include a thin cutlet of veal with the bone coated with egg and bread crumbs and topped with a light lemon sauce, and risotto with herbed saffron and Arborio rice blended with cream, cheese, white wine and chicken stock.
Seafood is the staple in Venice, where the best restaurants source locally from the lagoon and main sidewalks typically teem with tourists. In Venice and elsewhere, I steered clear of the tourist-filled restaurants, favoring instead the places where the locals eat.
One such restaurant was Trattoria Antiche Carampane on a side street close to the famed Rialto Bridge, where a specialty – Cassopipa, or spaghetti with a spicy shellfish sauce – features fish from Chioggia, a small fishing town on an island south of Venice. Another winner was Il Branzino in Salsa di Peperoni, or sea bass with a pepper sauce and creamy sundried tomato polenta or risotto with pancetta and peas. So was Il Fritto Misto di Pesce con le Moecheis, a mixed seafood stir-fry with soft-shell spider crabs from the lagoon.
Harry’s Bar in Venice was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Orson Welles – and the place where Bellinis were invented. Its original Bellini consists of puréed white peaches and Prosecco, a sweet sparkling wine.
Another memorable – and inexpensive – food experience awaits in Cinque Terre, or Five Lands. These five small towns – full of large stone retaining walls and candy-colored houses – are built into the cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. Little spots along the main streets of each sell large paper cones filled with crunchy breaded and fried anchovies, calamari, shrimp and cod – all taken from the sea that day.
After you’ve had your fill of fried fish, you can hike on Via dell’Amore, or Way of Love. The paved pathway stretches about 1 kilometer and connects the villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola. Trails, some of them very steep with lots of ups and downs, connect each of the five towns, perfect for working off a second helping.
To the south, Italy’s capital draws heavily on seasonal produce from the nearby countryside. Roman cuisine, although similar in some ways to that of the rest of the country, features certain dishes that are not widely known outside the city. Like much of Italy, pizzas abound – but Rome’s version has a special simplicity. It’s thin and baked, then finished with olive oil and topped with chopped fresh garlic and rosemary and just a little chopped fresh local or Sicilian tomato, mixed with olive oil and black pepper.
In Rome, many restaurants use pork fat for cooking oil and sauté artichokes and other local vegetables with sage, rosemary, garlic and, often, anchovy paste. A Roman specialty is Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, or spaghetti tossed with a delicate sauce of peeled and seeded tomatoes, onion and pancetta. So is Veal Saltimbocca, or Veal Scaloppini with fresh sage leaf and prosciutto.
Dessert items on Roman menus include fruit soaked in sweet wine, Ricotta-filled pastries, cheesecakes, fruit tarts featuring sour cherry jam or other local fruit, tiny cookies flavored with ingredients like amaretto or hazelnuts, and various types of sweet fritters, descendents of ancient Roman recipes.
Throughout Italy, plan on coffee, pastries, sliced meats and cheeses for breakfast as full American-style breakfasts are rare. My only full breakfast on this trip was at Milan’s Hotel Berna, known for perhaps the most extensive breakfast buffet in Italy.
For lunch, go to one of the many bars that sell panini, other sandwiches, coffee and, sometimes, gelato. Bars in Italy are more of a center of social life than places to simply have alcoholic drinks.
For dinner, don’t look for fettuccini alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs. Instead, ask locals – not the hotel desk clerk – where they eat with their family when they go out – and plan on eating late. Many restaurants in Italy do not open until 7:30 or 8 p.m.
Back in Florence, at L’Osteria di Giovanni, the family-owned eatery on the Via del Moro where I savored the last of my soup, it was time for dessert: Panaforte, or Strong Bread, a cross between candy and fruit cake that’s made with pine nuts, hazelnuts or chestnuts, candied fruit, spices, honey and sometimes chocolate. It’s usually topped with powdered sugar and served with Italian coffee, dessert wine or gelato.
I really enjoyed owner Giovanni Latini’s final touch, too: house-made biscotti, given as a parting gift to all diners.