Taking the Western Out of 'Spaghetti Western'
Ah, the sweet life. We've read about it, heard the stories from our well-fed friends returning home from their vacation and perhaps most commonly lost ourselves in vivid depictions of Italia on the silver screen. We have dreamt of the wine, fantasized of a whirlwind romance on gold sand beaches, and the gelato! Truly what dreams are made of...
Now your time has finally come to finalize the itinerary for arguably the most fantastical food journey of your life. Yes because any and every trip to Italy should be considered as such despite other (supplementary) plans to take in world-class cliffside vistas or the cruise high fashion avenues of Milan.
You may think that you've had great Italian food, particularly if you come from a major metropolis or hail more specifically from North American cities with massive Italian populations like Montreal, NYC, Toronto or Chicago, but you won't know real food until you touch down with your own two feet in the motherland of San Marzano and Mascarpone.
What makes Italy's food a cut above the rest? It's the strictly upheld, revered and traditional methods combined with a fertile land that produces some of the freshest, most flavourful, awe inspiringly simple ingredients that you have ever tasted in your life. When this fine tuned chemistry hits your tongue, you'll forget all about your favourite 'ristoranti' back home.
As beautiful an experience as authentic cuisine can be, there are few things to keep in mind when sourcing out the next best spot to savour its glory since some certain members living in the 5th most visited country in the world will want to cash in on unsuspecting tourists who don't know the difference between extra virgin and canola.
While the majority of Italian restauranteurs take an immense source of pride in what they offer up, it can be in your best interest to run through the following list to make sure you haven't fallen prey to a no-good tourist trap. There are just way too many exceptional options to waste your time with a mediocre meal in Italy.
22 There is a visible red and white checkered table cloth
This is an obvious one as it is quite literally, a red flag.
While gingham resurged as recently as 2017 as a fashionably acceptable print, it is most certainly not fashionable to seek one on your tabletop while touring around Italy.
We're not too sure how they came to resonate with North Americans as a symbol of Italy in the first place. Perhaps because of the intermingling of red and white stripe's uncanny ability to hide pasta sauce splatters in almost an illusionary 'magic eye' manner, maybe it's because it signals an old-time vibe that may prompt one to visit an Italian restaurant in the first place amidst the many other options back home. Kitschiness aside, the truth is, that it is just a tacky symbol without any real merit on Italian culture.
While tablecloths in general are still very much still in-play at many delicious Italian tables, if you are cruising past a restaurant with an ocean of red and white checkered tables just say NO.
It is the most obvious tell-tale sign that this restaurant is for tourists as most Italians use it like cat-nip for the unsuspecting, uninformed, American tourist (and if you're reading this, that's not you!).
21 The menu is in english or labelled 'turistico'
"Oh how lovely, a menu that I can actually understand - and look at that, they even have spaghetti and meatballs!" is NOT a sentence that you should ever utter while on holiday in Italy.
If there are symbols of international flags anywhere on the menu, run- don't walk!
You aren't in Italy to eat like an American, or be accommodated like you would be in America. You want your server to not-so-subtly look down on you for not making due effort to roll your 'r's when ordering the 'carbonara.' You want them to be abrupt and busy in that Italian no-nonsense way. Why? Because they are too busy hand-folding tortellini to coddle you into ordering it! Their focus and care is reserved for the slowly stewing ragu and the delicately rising dough to explain to you why 'fettuccini alfredo' isn't on the menu.
You are in Italy to eat weird things that you can't even put into words. You would be better off just closing your eyes and pointing at an item on a cryptic Italian menu than to eat at a restaurant that has gone through the measures to 'accommodate' English speaking tourists. Aside from the fact that the menus intended for clueless English tourists often mean prices to match. It means that the high price you pay is actually for lower quality ingredients and more specifically the absence number of the number one key ingredient that you can find almost always in traditional Osterias across the land: love.
20 There are photos of pasta on the walls or on the menu
Sweet lord, just typing that felt like a food blasphemy.
If there is a photo of a plate of pasta on the wall, this is not a restaurant for Italians. Italians don't need a lot of description when it comes to pasta. They understand the exact ingredients of what will appear on their plate from the name alone. Following the original recipe is not just a science, it is gospel and an immense source of pride for the entire country.
Sure, there are some forward-thinking 'new school' chefs in the larger Italian metropolises like Bologna or Firenze (Florence) who may interpret a pasta dish in a modern way, but any substitutes will be briefly listed on the menu as they are likely a local ingredient that people of the land know and therefore will willingly accept without some horribly-modeled photograph of it.
In Italy, pasta is always intentionally paired with the sauce. As in, the pasta serves as a vehicle to shelter the ingredients of the sauce it bears on its journey to your mouth. Think about how intense that is? There is no way, that any self-respecting Italian chef would plaster their domain with photographs to try to win over its patrons. Pasta is sacrosanct, Italians know that and now so do you.
19 Do you hear any Italian being spoken at the other tables?
In fact, if you're in a really excellent and authentic restaurant in Italy, it should be the only thing you hear (other than maybe the muffled sound of generic pop music and/or Reggeaton playing on the radio of every Italian establishment ever).
At very least, you should see hands flailing about at your neighbouring tables as they talk, this in itself is a signal that they're real deal Italians.
That being said, upon visiting the famous Aldina's in Modena, it was true that I heard languages from far and wide, which could have meant *gasp* that I was eating at a tourist trap. However, this Trattoria is so legit that they don't even hand out menus. Rather, the one, dizzyingly busy server verbally tells you what they were making that day. It was one of the best meals I have ever had in Italy to this day.
Italians have very high standards when it comes to eating. Tourists who come from other lands, tend to be impressed more easily because even an aspect of an average restaurant in Italy while on holiday, will probably amuse. This is true of most foreign countries that we visit. The quirks can serve as a distraction from the actual food quality. One time while touring in Tuscany I overheard a tourist exclaim how thrilled she was by how much bread there was offered at the table - not exactly Michelin star standards here people...
It may be tempting to ask other travellers that you meet where they had a good meal but my advice is to always ask Italians for their restaurant recommendations. Especially if they are native to the place you are visiting. If you are at a hotel, they may get a bit of kick-back for sending you off to higher end spots so I always prefer to ask locals.
18 There's more than one person wearing socks and sandals in the restaurant
We can excuse one lonely tourist.
However, if you see that there are numerous sock and sandal clad folks in the restaurant, they are not Italians and this could very well mean that you have uncovered a tourist trap. Why is this a tell-tale sign you ask? Simply put, an Italian wouldn't be caught dead wearing socks and sandals in public. With a culture that is world renown for their artisanal expertise in crafting some of the most beautiful, comfortable, and often affordable shoes, there just is no reason for ugly, practical footwear! Shoe game is very important and Italians are more likely rocking bedazzled gold sneakers with funky fishnet sockettes or handmade patent leather loafers if it's comfort that they're after -never, ever socks and sandals.
My now boyfriend once confessed that he spotted me immediately as a foreigner in a nightclub solely (see what I did there?) because I was wearing flip flops (admittedly, not my most elegant hour) in an upscale beachside club where the other Italian ladies were rocking 6 inch pumps. My boyfriend was in his early 20s and noticed my shoes in a dark nightclub. That's the level of shoe pride we are talking here!
17 It is REALLY elaborately decorated (in a tacky way)
Leaning tower of Pisa figurines, Italian flags, a twinkle light path leading up to the door where the words 'That's Amore!!' are branded across a giant glass pane window. The more elaborate the curb appeal, the more likely you are dealing with a tourist trap that is appealing to every Americans first instinct to judge things immediately on the grandiosity of their appearance.
Some of the best restaurants that I have been to are either totally nondescript in their appearance or understated chic. Maybe a small vase on the table with a wildflower, a couple of candles there, and some giant jars of olives and wine bottles.
That being said, there are also a sector of ristoranti that capitalize on the endearing aura of a land rich in history and culture. I'm not saying to avoid restaurants with twinkle lights, because gosh darn it do I ever love me some twinkle lights! I'm simply stating that an Italian restaurant that has sunk a tonne of cash into its curb appeal is hiding something - likely a less than stellar food experience. You're in Italy so you don't have to spend a lot of money to have the best quality food, you just need to know what to look for (and what to avoid) and flashy Italian stereotypical decor is something you should definitely avoid.
16 There is free wifi
Perhaps the most telling of all is the 'WIFI FREE' signs in the window. It truly drives me nuts that these signs actually mean the reverse of what their intended to in English. Personal rant aside, Italy is not a free WiFi culture. Even as freelance writer who would love nothing more than to be consistently hopped up on yummy espressos while I take in the view at a beachside cafe, I can appreciate why it's not available. People are out doing stuff! They aren't lurking indoors at cafes for long periods of times à la the new age American hipster. Also, data plans in Italy are incredibly generous so most Italian people just operate off their phones.
Any cafe that advertises free WiFi is looking to pull in tourists so they can charge you 2 euros for a bottle of water that Italians get at the grocery shops for a mere few cents, and call it a day.
15 Is there one of these machines at the door?
These mysterious colourful machines are a symbol that Italians eat there and a marking that I use personally to decipher whether a restaurant is worth exploring. It signals to me that Italian families are going there with their kids. Where you find these eye-sore marigold yellow toy dispensers, you will also find moderately priced menus with a little something for everyone.
Obviously, classier establishments and Michelin star spots don't have bright yellow gum-ball machines at the door. Let's say that in an effort to explore, you have wandered off from the beaten path and find yourself in a small town where the locals-only culture is so strong that you're too embarrassed to ask for a recommendation - look for the yellow machines.
14 They are treating you really nicely and speaking english with you
This is a bit of a generalization because, from time to time you will actually find an Italian who is keen to speak English because of a fascination to travel to America or a student-exchange program they did in the UK but I'm going to go ahead and generalize now and say these types of interactions are typically reserved for a younger demographic.
If an Italian is prompted by their employer in a restaurant to learn English it is (100%) likely for the tourist season. This all comes back to making the less obviously glorious choice to be scoffed at by a small (but mighty!) elderly Italian woman in a floral print button-up house coat and wooden heeled Dr. Scholl's slip on sandals who squints and says 'ehh??' after everything you order because she can't understand your accent no matter how big you smile and repeat yourself. This is all part of the experience of visiting Italy, just go with it!
13 It's on a main road
This is pretty sound across any European vacation hot spot - main roads or restaurants near tourist attractions are generally cutting a few corners and relying on proximity and exposure to do their bidding with the masses.
It's not that they are all bad spots but I would be willing to bet that they are moreso on autopilot mode than restaurants on quieter stretches of road.
The beauty of visiting Italy is that there really is no bad view. Turning a corner and taking a gander down the street that isn't listed in your guidebook can wield delightful results! There is something really nice about coming across a hidden treasure trattoria in a happenstance manner. This of course, is best done when your tank isn't running on empty because if you've been walking for hours on end, you're more likely to think any place with food looks like a delicious option.
12 It is a very large and empty restaurant
Like nonsensically large?
Italian people should have been the pioneers of the saying 'waste not, want not' because they are incredibly crafty and skilled at making due with odds, both in cooking and in all other aspects of their lifestyle. By that logic, seeing a large, under-utilized space should signal to you to keep moving.
It's either a chain, not owned by Italians, or just not a popular restaurant - none of which tick the boxes for your fantastical food journey.
If you see a great big restaurant that's chock-full of buzzing people breaking bread and enjoying themselves, then of course, the size of the restaurant is in relation to its demand and probably a safe bet! This point becomes more or less effective as you gauge with some of the other points mentioned on the list. If you're truly stumped, you can always give it a quick google and check out Trip Advisor for additional clues.
11 Do you see a Nonna anywhere?
A Nonna or Italian grandmother, is the true marker of an authentic food experience in Italy. If you see a Nonna, or multiple Nonnas inside of a restaurant you are window shopping at, it is a very good sign.
I don't even just mean that the Nonna has to be the one in the kitchen cooking (although preferable) as you will sometimes see Italian restaurants back home boasting their in-house Nonna. Simply observing an Italian Nonna enjoying their meal as a patron at the restaurant means that you can feel at ease that this restaurant is qualified in providing an authentic meal.
I mean, who better to judge the authenticity of a traditional Italian dish than a woman who lived through the decades of its development. It's not even a stereotype (okay it is, but it's true!) to say that Nonna's are truly the highest level purveyor of food quality in Italy.
Many of whom have spent their lives growing and nurturing their food from field to table and simultaneously providing meals for generations of family gatherings. A Nonna is also unsurprisingly vocal about refinements required to improve upon a particular dish, everyone here in Italy knows this and a good restauranteur will secretly aim to please the Nonnas as they should.
10 Do you see long tables set and reserved for a large quantity (of 8+)?
The larger that the tables are, the better.
Usually fan-favourite Italian restaurants in Italy will have long rectangular tables that are reserved for family gatherings. In Italy, that happens just about every Sunday without fail.
Food itself is not only a source of pride for Italian people but the act of eating together as a family is ritualistic. This is something that you will have witnessed firsthand if you have Italian heritage, grew up around Italians or accidentally got invited to an Italian wedding.
Family is very important and thereby, so are these never-ending meals together that can go on for 7 courses or more including an antipasto (light appetizer), primo (pasta), secondo (meat or fish) contorno (something on the side), insalata (salad to cleanse the palette), formaggi e frutta (cheese and fruit), dolce (sweets), cafe (coffee), and finally a digistivo (a shot of liqueur to help digest all the glorious goodness consumed).
Seeing as how this is a combo of the very things that Italians cherish most, the restaurants who host these large family gatherings have to understand these nuances in order to see repeat business.
In other words, seeing those long tables set for family meals is an indication that this is a restaurant that caters to Italians, their standards, and their families. So you are in the right place, friend.
9 There is a non-functional vespa outside the restaurant
This is quite a clear marker of a tourist trap. It's okay we can all admit that the sight of a vespa conjures up all kinds of irrational romantic montages in our head of us elegantly poised on the back, throwing our head back with laughter as the wind sweeps through our wild curly hair (Diane Lane in Under The Tuscan Sun, anyone?).
The seduction of the vespa is palatable to foreigners and Italians know this - it's why they parked one directly outside of their restaurant. I'm not saying that good restaurants don't exist with vespas parked outside, I'm just saying I've never been to one here in Italy. I would much sooner seek a no-frills, understated locale that focuses on investing all that extra cash that they saved on the vespa, into a big wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, ya dig? Bonus points if they are scooping risotto out of it and onto my plate. Priorities people!
8 There is Someone in costume inviting you inside
I mean this would be common sense almost anywhere else in the world but as a visitor, you might get swept up in the 'vibe of Venice' and assume it's par for the course. Italians, while remarkably talented and well-known for a long line of arts and culture legends around the world, don't usually offer up entertainment at dinner time. They also don't beg you to eat their food (editor's note: Nonna's are the exception to this rule, they beg and it's because they want to make sure you don't die of starvation after only two bowls of pasta!).
If there is someone wearing a uniform (read: costume) waving you into the restaurant it's because you have baited yourself out as a tourist. Are you holding a selfie stick? Are you wearing socks and sandals? The jig is up and they see dollar signs!
You will know the mark of a genuine restaurant if they don't seem to bothered, bonus points if they are genuinely apathetic towards your presence in their restaurant. Customer service hasn't exactly caught on in Italy yet, so it might strike a nerve but this old school indicator translates to old school sauce. Totally worth it.
7 Giant Portions
I've become obsessed with a reality show here in Italy entitled 4 Ristoranti or 4 Restaurants featuring chef Alessandro Borghese. On the show he visits regional restaurants with four other restaurant owners as they compete against each other in categories like location, menu, service and bill (value). It is amazing because I've learned so much about the culture of Italian dining and how to inspect a meal like an Italian would. A common area for comment is regarding the portion size.
Unlike America, here, Italians don't want giant portions, they want the right portion for the right price - what a concept! That's not to say that some homestyle restaurants don't still believe in the big heaping pile of pasta for the whole family (family-style dining) where the pasta IS delicious. It's more of a footnote on any potential recommendations you might get from fellow travellers who remark on the giant portions, where an Italian will make comment on the value.
A smaller portion pasta that contains locally sourced ingredients will be a more interesting experience than a belly full of industrialized dishes. It will be hard of course to judge on first appearance but more restaurants are advertising '0 km' dishes which means that the ingredients quite literally come from their land. It is definitely worth experiencing a few of these locally sourced meals where possible.
6 Two words: Chicken Pasta
It's just not done.
If you see that a menu is offering up any format of chicken pasta it is certifiably a tourist trap. Much like the ever-Americanized spaghetti and meatballs, any version of pasta with chicken is just that, Americanized.
To Italians, with few exceptions, pasta and meat are two separate dishes. This is why menus are divided into primo and secondo categories. No one is saying that you should stop making these pasta dishes at home if you enjoy them!
Afterall, cooking is a format of creative expression so, if you have a good sense of flavours you should feel free to let that freak flag fly!! However, if you are visiting Italy, you should not expect to see this combination on the menu. As we mentioned earlier, pasta and its corresponding sauce choice is very specific in Italy.
If you see chicken pasta on the menu it means the Italians inside have given up. If you are hungering for a pasta dish with meat, tagliatelle ragú is a classic dish that most restaurants offer - give it a go, you won't be disappointed!
5 Is there a soccer game on somewhere in and around the place you are eating?
Soccer is a big part of the culture in Italy. I write this on a particularly touchy year where team Italia did not make it to the world cup so I am going to tread lightly here. Typically speaking, people play soccer. If they aren't playing soccer, they are talking about or watching soccer - or both!
It's normal to find yourself in touristy bits of the city when exploring but you will know that you're out of the touristy woods if you spot a television that is being used solely to broadcast soccer games. It is the national sport and one that divides the country into a multitude of supporter types - even within immediate families - and has little to do with the place where you live or are born. It can be an incredibly authentic experience just to watch a soccer game amongst Italians and one that I highly recommend. Forza!
4 If you recognize the celebrity photos up on the wall - it's no good.
As a foreigner visiting Italy you should consider why an Italian restaurant would put up photos of American celebrities over their own Italian celebrities. It tells you something about their target demographic. I mean, I'm all for an Italian who has a passion for American culture but I just find it a bit strange in the context of a restaurant.
The whole reason you come to Italy is to eat your way through a long history of perfection! It can be cool to see celebrities (particularly chefs) who have been places that you are, but please stay focused on our goal of the fantastical food journey! It is much more reassuring (as backwards as it seems) to see a wall-of-fame depicting faces of famous Italians whom you know nothing about! It all comes back to the fact that they are focused on attracting and impressing Italians.
If you see a photo of Kim Kardashian by all means, feel free to (I recommend that you) assume tuck and roll position, escaping to the nearest w00d-burning pizzeria.
3 If there is pizza, meat, and fish within a 10+ page long menu, ask yourself: how can this all be fresh?
In Italy, it is normal to have to do your food shopping (if you want the freshest ingredients possible) at 2 or 3 different shops. There's the forno (bakery), macelleria (butcher), and the pasticceria (cannolis, and crema, and torte, oh my!) so if you think about a restaurant, where you are hoping to sample authentic Italian cuisine, you can imagine how it would be difficult (and expensive!) to acquire all of the fresh ingredients required to produce a long menu boasting everything under the (Tuscan) sun.
Likely, this type of restaurant (otherwise known as a tourist trap) will use frozen ingredients and cut corners thinking that you will be so pleased to have the choice, that you won't notice.
A great way to suss out better options is to pick restaurants that do one thing really well. Often that means a fish restaurant will focus on fish! A pizzeria may offer pasta too, but probably won't offer tagliata (sliced steak) and fish as well - it would just be too darn expensive!
Instead of trying to have it all in one place, focus on one type (or category of food, even) at a time. This way, what you sacrifice in variety, you make up with curated and fresh authenticity.
2 There Is A Coperto Charge of more than 4 euros per person
Coperto literally translates to 'cover' and is a charge that a number of sit-down restaurants implement here in Italy to cover the cost of cutlery and service. It's not exactly a tip seeing as how that isn't done in Italy, but you can think of it that way if it helps you wrap your mind around a seemingly useless tax. It is pretty standard and is often advertised on the menu at the bottom including the amount, that is if you are not at a touristic eatery. Unfortunately, this is one of the easiest ways that bad-apple restauranteurs are able to swindle foreigners.
Omission of information is not to be taken in stride! Don't be afraid to ask what the service charge is if the amount is not listed! If it is listed as anything more than 4 euros, it's not usual and borderline criminal. Coperto charges can run as low as 0.50 euro to 2 euro but anything more means that you are in a high-end establishment or more likely getting bamboozled. Also, the coperto charge will be clearly marked on your receipt that you given as it is legally required in Italy for every business transaction.
1 Mysterious Gifts at The Table
This one can be a bit awkward if you're not careful. Typically speaking, a coperto charge will cover the cost of bread and a digestivo at the end of your meal in the form of the ever-famous limoncello or liquirizia to help get things moving after you've ingested an aggressive amount of food.
When you are visiting an establishment between 5pm and 8pm (typically) when you order an alcoholic beverage you will also receive aperitivo which is a menagerie of breads, cured meats, cheeses and olives - it is delightful! That being said, anything that randomly appears on your table outside of these very normal, expectant things, should be questioned. Unless you don't mind paying for things you didn't order, of course! This can be a sneaky maneuver done by unreliable restaurant owners to clear out old stock like old bread, fish under the guise of 'hospitality' except it's the kind that unknowingly lands on you bill. This is a great time to be the savvy traveller that you are and exercise some Italian! Simply point to the object in question be it bread, a platter of ham, a small plate of desserts and say 'è incluso?" which means "is it included?" Most importantly, when it's on the house, it will be stated up front.
In some cases, it will be a genuine miscommunication, in others it is simply a manipulation but in either case, it can never hurt to clarify.