I have come to consider myself what I call an “amateur foodie.” By this, I mean that I am highly enthusiastic about cooking, watching chefs at work, generally learning about food, and most importantly, eating food. The afore mentioned covers the “foodie” part; the “amateur” part is established by the fact that I haven’t experienced or learned nearly enough to earn the title of “professional.” In an effort to advance myself in the world of food appreciation, I’ve developed a number of strategies. I’ve employed these often in my travels and continue to do so now in the home of the best cuisine on Earth. (I’m not biased at all, of course.) What follows is a brief explanation of some of these strategies, as well as a few recommended stops for fellow foodies who may visit this land of gastronomic delight:
Eat foods you can’t get at home.
This seems an obvious approach, but it is one often neglected. I can’t tell you how many people in my program visited a Mexican, sushi, or burger joint within a week of arriving here. When a McDonald’s was discovered at the train station, they rejoiced and paid some six plus euro to partake. To me, this is blasphemy. Firstly, I strive to avoid familiar chains when travelling. How can you hope to discover anything new and exciting when you always retreat to what’s familiar? It is with the same mentality that I try dishes I’ve never heard of, fruits I’ve never seen, wines I’ve certainly never sampled. I do most of my grocery shopping at the local markets, where I am constantly stirred by the variety of unfamiliar and intriguing foods. (Side note, not only can you feast your eyes at markets and find superb products, but you can often sample wares as well. In short, they are a foodie’s paradise!) To engage in the food culture of a place, it’s kind of essential to eat the food unique to it.
Do your research.
As I’ve travelled around Italy, I’ve been doing a bit of preparatory research. Before visiting a new city, I make a list of its particular regional specialties. I also try to identify a few quality, authentic restaurants, either through reading reviews online or asking Italians I know. Armed with my notes, I’ve been highly successful in eating well in unfamiliar territory. While others may default to touristy pizza joints, I’ve had amazing seafood and pesto pasta in Cinque Terre, delectable artichokes and a chocolate lover’s dream in Rome, to-die-for hare stew, fried veggies, and delectable sweet bread in Lucca, melt-in-your-mouth almond cookies, rich chicken liver crostini, and pasta with wild boar in Siena, among many other delights. Within Florence, most of my research has been focused on gelato, and I am proud to say that I have yet to have a less than blissful experience. Remember that Italy is more than pizza and your standard pastas. There is so much to be discovered if you just take the time.
Remember that you pay for what you get.
While there is perfectly delightful food available at affordable prices in Italy, the aspiring foodie has to accept that exceptional dining experiences sometimes require us to reach a little deeper in our pockets. This hasn’t been much of a concerned me much as one of my top priorities has been to eat delicious food while I’m here. Consequently, a vast portion of the money I spend is dedicated to this cause. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve bought a single souvenir yet. I’m a bit of an oddball in that way, though, and I do acknowledge that. Regardless, I would highly recommend indulging at least once or twice.
This is a vague strategy and is partially overlapped by those listed above, but I feel it deserves its own mention. In engaging in a different food culture than your own, you must acknowledge that it is just that – different. Maybe you’ve never even thought of eating tripe, crawfish and shrimp with the heads still on, cuttlefish, rabbit, wild boar, or liver. As one who has tasted and enjoyed all of these foods, I can assure you that they are not at all off-putting. There’s no harm in trying, and you are allowed to dislike a dish after sampling it. However, not trying a highly traditional dish because an ingredient pushes your comfort zone could be a squandered opportunity for a fantastic meal.
If you can, take a cooking class.
You get to see how the food is made, do it yourself, then eat it. Enough said.
Some see the seriousness with which I approach eating as an amusing quirk. I revel in it, though, and find joy in the instances when others let me bring them along on my food adventures. Allow me to let you in on a few, as I share a few of my finds below:
Favorite gelato: La Carraia – Wonderfully creamy gelato, HUGE variety of flavors, and lots of price options. Get a tasting cone (one flavor) for just a euro, or go big with an absolutely monstrous cone for five, or anywhere in between. Of the flavors I’ve tried, I’d highly recommended ricotta/pear, white chocolate/pistachio, and coconut.
Favorite pizza: Gusta Pizza – I actually haven’t bothered anywhere else. There is simply no need. I suggest going at lunch time when there is no line, though they deal with dinner rush very well.
Favorite bar (cafe): Pasticceria Nencioni – I’ve actually only been once, but I’ve decided it’s where I’m going to head for dessert on my birthday. It’s a small, almost hidden shop with a display case that will make your mouth water, lovely cappuccinos, friendly baristas, and decent prices. It has the added element of smelling absolutely fabulous as you walk by.
Second favorite bar: Scudieri – Scudieri is one of the oldest, most famous bars in Florence and really does need a mention. Going there makes you feel like high society. It’s extremely classy, but won’t break the bank, surprisingly. Their variety of desserts is unmatched from what I’ve seen in Italy so far. You will be stymied as to what to choose. Keep in mind that while many of these sweet delights are reasonably priced, some of the tiny cookies are more expensive than you’d think.
Place to splurge a little: Ganzo – Florence University of the Arts culinary students prepare some amazing tasting menus here. Their appertivos, lunch, and normal dinner menus are less pricey, but I would highly recommend the eight piece meal they offer. It’s an extravaganza of scrumptious goodness.
Central market: Look for the stand with a million different types of biscotti. They always have a ton of samples out and don’t seem to care how many you take. There’s also a stand with a lot of cheeses and dried meats out that they encourage you to try, but there is more pressure to actually purchase there, so visit sparingly.
Ambrogio market: There’s this one meat/cheese vender always set up outside that will insist you take a sample and doesn’t expect you to buy. There’s some really nice, affordable prepared foods here; this is where I first tried lampredotto.
Papei – My Italian professor is from Siena and this was her recommendation. I ate there and quite enjoyed myself.
L’Antico Sigillo – Wish we had found this place earlier in the day. We just stopped in for some appetizers (delicious) but the menu looked fabulous. Real Lucchese cuisine. Also, their fresh baked bread was amazing.
Pasticceria Taddeucci – This place was recommended countless times online. Established pastry shop serving many scrumptious looking desserts – I got buccellato from there.
Taverna del Capitano – This place was recommended to us by a guide who goes to Cinque Terre all the time. It did not disappoint.