I will modify the classic saying: When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat. While only in Rome long enough for lunch between connecting from plane to train, I was in Italy for an extended period of time. It was the first time in four years that I have the time and opportunity to travel the way I prefer: longer than a three-day weekend and with an opportunity to spend several days in one place to really drill down into a town to a point that I feel I know it well and feel like a local. The place I chose to cocoon was Monterosso al Mare in the Cinque Terre. I was in Monterosso about ten years ago as a detour during a Contiki Tour (for all of 6 hours). I told myself that if I came back to Italy, this would be exactly where I would spend my time. It as great. But let me back track to the big picture.
No matter where you travel, you can enhance your trip by doing a small amount of research to figure out what the locals eat and what foods are unique or special to the area. Just about every place has a style of food it excels in or some regional fruit or vegetable you won’t see on your table at home. Food defines a place and a culture. From the Aborigines of Australia to the neighborhoods of Chicago, every tribe has something that is unique that is worth trying and remembering as part of your experience. Figuring out these signature foods and seeking them out can really make a holiday more fun and enjoyable and more importantly connect you to the people and place you have invested your time and your money to explore. I’ve eaten bush tucker in Australia (ants, roots and more), Kava in Fiji, Bull Balls in Honduras, Poutine in Montreal, 13 Italian Beer Sandwiches in one day in Chicago, etc. etc.
If there is not a local food then there is certainly a local place – a diner, favored restaurant or tavern where the locals go and the tourists don’t. You can search Yelp and/or Trip Advisor or Rick Steves and/or Frommer’s to find these places but it is critical you to validate those suggestions with some local interaction. Ask someone, anyone when you arrive – a store clerk, cab driver, anyone you interact with about where the locals eat and you are bound to find a great spot that no one has written about that is as good or better than any place that is on the radar of everyone else.
I’ll use my honeymoon in Italy as an example.
A quick google search, supplemented my own knowledge and notes I made from the various travel guides I browsed before departure. I had be a good idea of what to look for that was unique with a minimal investment of time. I found overviews from Rick Steves, The New York Times, and Walks of Italy to name a few.
Italy, in particular, is a food lovers dream. While Italians might not be overly concerned with their trains running on time, they certainly take their foods very, very seriously. The first example of that is DOC. In a nutshell, for a food to use the DOC label they must be able to show that it was produced in a defined region, using specific methods while maintaining a high standard of quality. The Italians also have an upgrade of that listed as DOCG. The European Union uses Protected Designation of Origin in a similar manner. As a general rule, if you see this notation, you can count on a high level of quality. The DOC applies to (the items I ate in great quantity) wines, cheeses, meats and even pizza. Yes – in Italy, the best pizzerias take pride in displaying their DOC certificate and using DOC ingredients.
Speaking of Italy and food, gelato was a priority for me and this in particular is a food you need to do some research in advance to enhance your experience. First know the rules. It is OK to ask to taste flavors as long as you don’t taste too many and it is not too busy. Italy is very civilized in how it approaches ordering gelato. You pay for your treat first and then you take a ticket to have the order filled. How many times have your ordered ice cream only to find that you are balancing your wallet and other things while trying not to drop your cone. Know what you want. When you walk in to a good gelato shop it will be busy and filled with people who pop into one every day buzzing around like a beehive, so when to wander through the door like a deer in the headlights you need to know what you are doing. Don’t freeze at showtime – know if you want a cup or cone, and if you want 2, 3, 4 or 5 scoops and don’t be afraid to point if you can’t pronounce the flavor that looks good to you. Look for this phrase by the name of the shop – gelato artiginale. The Translated term is artisanal gelato – which means small batch, all natural ingredients and made fresh daily. Also keep an eye out of metal storage containers and serving scoops, plastic does not fly for holding or delivering the good stuff. Yet another term to look for is produzione propria which means made on premises.
There were definitely foods that I was on the look out for because I knew they would be unique to the regions I was in or at the very least the best of the best in the areas that excel at producing and extol the merits of their labors. Number one on the list – mozzarella di bufala or Buffalo Mozzarella. You can find this in the states – but it is typically really expensive, not overly fresh and rarely exceptional. In Italy, it is easy to find, almost always reasonably priced and exceptionally good. Having eaten enough pizza in Italy to the point that I opted not to order any in our final three days, I have decided the only thing that really justifies the intensity in which people rave about “real” Italian pizza is buffalo mozzarella – that shit is good and it makes the pizza.
Other foods I sought out due to my pre-trip research: Mortadella ham, speck, pesto and any cheese I could lay my hands on.
I think that gives you an idea of some of what a small investment in time can give you in return.
Something else that is work researching is making sure you know how to say a few basic food and transactional related phrases in the language of the country you are visiting. Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank You, Excuse Me, How Much, and Check Please (otherwise it may never come). Those few phrases will grease the wheels of international exchange and reduce your likelihood of being perceived as an asshole.
I’m going to list our a few of our favorite places in Italy
Rome: Lunch near Termini Station
This place was chosen at random after looking at the menu and seeing there were plenty of seats. We had one of the best pizzas on our trip, a good pasta dish and one of the best salads as well. Our service was decent, if not a bit befuddled and confused with our table being traded off by 6 or more employees.
L’Antica Pizzeria – Da Michele
Via Cesare Sersale 1
This was a great old school pizza place. It looked exactly like I would have wanted a pizza parlor to look. Our pizza was good but we made an ordering error. We did not know this was the place mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love until we finished our meal. It was then that we saw the quote from the book on the wall which said that the pizza with double buffalo mozzarella was the way to go. That is what we wished we would had ordered.
Via Toledo 258, Piazza degli Artisti 4-5, Via Chiaia 189, Piazza Vanvitelli/Via Scarlatti 84
Really good gelato in the quintessential gelateria.
Via dei Tribunali 379
Really good deep fried things and good pizza. The place was not crowded, as were our other two choices, but they did an incredible amount of carry out business while we were there which is a good sign that the locals liked that place.
We stayed in Naples for two days, that was more than enough time. Naples is the armpit of Italy, avoid staying there if you can. Our hotel there was excellent which helped a lot.
Monterosso al Mare
Where to stay
Albergo Marina Via Buranco 40
Owned by a great couple who provide breakfast and lunch everyday as well as plenty of beach gear including a kayak.
Where to eat
The owners of Albergo Marina (named after the wife) also have a tiny cafe just down the street named after the husband. The Antipasta for two is an artisinal delight and was my best meal in Italy. Read the Trip Advisor review for good photos and pics (just ignore the June 11th review, that woman is clearly an idiot).
Enoteca da Eliseo
3 Piazza Matteotti
I’ll defer to the Trip Advisor review for pics and details. Mrs Gourmand and I visited five nights in a row and only missed a sixth because they were closed. The local wine selections were deep, the grappa list was numbered in pages and the knowledge of the owners on everything in the shop was extensive. This was also where we discovered the concept of the bar snack (cicheti), which is ubiquitous in this region of Italy. Here the snacks were three small glass dishes with peanuts, capers and olives.
Pizzeria La Smorfia
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 73
I loved this place. They have 78 pizza combinations to choose from. I’m deferring to Trip Advisor again.
Our greatest discovery in Italy you ask? Lemon Fanta. We consumed this at almost the same rate and volume as we consumed wine (everyday, as often as possible). What makes this Fanta better than Fanta stateside. The sugar was real and there is 12% real lemon juice in each can or bottle. This was addictively good.
Now I’ll add some bonus content with a list of rambling general suggestions for traveling
- Yes you can travel with just one bag. I used a bag that converts to a backpack. Mrs. Gourmand received the same pack for Christmas and she used it on this trip with great success!
- Make copies of your passport, credit cards and all of your tickets to keep in your bag in case you lose your primary items
- Make a visit to a used book store to take some reading material you can leave behind when you finish each book
- Look at every travel guide you can find at / from the library before you buy one. I prefer Rick Steves for Europe and Frommers for elsewhere
- Sometimes I just pack a guide from the library and hope I don’t lose it
- Post It Tape flags are really handy, take some
- Stay at a bed and breakfast when you can, it is a great way to connect with people
- Try to travel off-peak (Mondays to Wednesdays) for better airfare and fewer crowded flights
- If you are like me and you have enough reusable shopping bags for a lifetime take a couple with you in your bag. They come in handy for lots of things: dirty laundry, an extra bag, extra padding if you need to wrap something to bring home or a unique gift (or trade) for someone you meet on your trip.
- Always take more socks and pens than you think you will need
- The best all around travel footwear in a pair of Merrill (Saugatuck Fisherman Sandal) or Teva closed toe sandals – light weight and easy to slip on and off – they are the perfect second pair of shoes, great for hiking or the beach
- Take a couple extra 1 quart ziplock bags. They come in handy for things like packing a lunch for the day (that you purloin from the breakfast bar) or covering dirty shoes before you pack them for the day
- When someone from the USA asks you where you are from, say Columbus. When someone from another country asks you where you are from say Ohio