FRANCE MAY BE the best place in Europe to dine, but Italy is the best place to eat. In France, a good meal is
respected, looked upon as something special-something to be planned, appreciated, eulogized, remembered. In Italy, a
good meal is no big deal; it’s more or less an everyday occurrence and thus is rarely gussied up with formal
Cooking is art in France; in Italy, it’s life. As a result, Italy’s eating places tend to be simpler, warmer and
more accessible than those in France. The best French restaurants can seem awesome and intimidating, but the best
Italian restaurants usually just seem like, well, restaurants: noisy, active, redolent with good smells and full of
people chowing down.
Listed below are brief notes on 10 of my favorite restaurants in several parts of Italy- establishments that
represent the richness and variety of Italian food (and the simplicity and warmth of Italian restaurants)
particularly well. Some are minor monuments; others are but small diversions. All are good, and each in its own way
is as much a part of the Italian experience as any church or castle.
It’s important to remember that Italian food in Italy is not much like Italian food in America. To return to the
French comparison, eating at Jean Claude or Calluaud’s is surprisingly like eating in Paris or Lyon; but eating at
Bugatti or La Tosca-however good they might be – isn’t much like eating in Florence or Milan. Italian cooking
depends far more than French cuisine does on the special qualities of local products and on ingrown regional
philosophies of preparation, which don’t translate particularly well into the American vernacular.
The dishes themselves are different: You could spend a month in Italy and never once encounter minestrone,
prosciutto and melon, crab cannelloni, fettuccine Alfredo, saltimboc-ca or veal Marsala. Or you might encounter them
and find them vastly different from their American counterparts (even though our versions might, in some cases, be
better). The original fettuccine Alfredo, for instance, has only butter and cheese-no cream sauce. Pastas in Italy
generally have far less sauce than they do here. Tomato sauce and oregano overdoses are unknown in many parts of
Italy; cheese melted over veal or chicken is a rarity. Coffee is rich and thick, and you get about three-quarters of
an inch of it in a tiny cup. Other differences are legion.
Even reading a menu can be a challenge. A typical country restaurant in Umbria (between Rome and Florence) might
offer such dishes as crostini campagnoli, strangozzi di Spoleto, regina in prochetta and faroana alia ghiot-ta, with
nary a fried calamari or ravioli with meat sauce in sight. (For the record, those dishes are, in order: canape’s of
mushroom paste or chicken liver paté; local fettuccinelike pasta with garlic, basil and tomato; carp cooked with
rosemary, garlic, wild fennel and ham fat; and guinea hen with liver-and-giblet sauce.)
One final note: If you can read Italian even a little, an invaluable companion to Italian dining is La Guida
d’ltalia, published annually by L’Espresso (the Time magazine of Italy) and sold at bookstores and
newsstands all over the country. It rates more than 2,000 restaurants from the Alps to Sicily, and I’ve almost
always had good luck with its recommendations.
Giglio Rosso da Ermo, Piazza Luigi di Savoia 2, tel. 27.16.428. An unpretentious trattoria with an ample menu
and a good location (across the square from Milan’s main train station). When I last went to Italy, da Ermo was the
first restaurant I visited, precisely because it was so convenient. It was a reasonable choice: Sitting on the
patio, partially shaded from the street but still close enough to get the feel of Milan’s electricity, I sampled
roasted red and yellow peppers, grilled baby chicken, a colorful mixed salad and a hunk of crumbly young Parmesan
cheese, all washed down with a bottle of pleasant if undistinguished Chian-ti, and I knew I was in Italy.
Grilled meats and fish are good here, and there’s a nice serve-yourself antipasto table.
Scaletta, Piazzale Stazione Genova 3, tel. 83.50.290. A small, attractive room brightened by fresh flowers,
Lalique glass fixtures and old etchings. The food is partly traditional Italian (Milanese and otherwise) and partly
international, but it is unfailingly fine. Typical (and atypical) dishes here include pate’s (a Scaletta specialty)
of smoked eel and shrimp; smoked trout and celery salad; risotto with snails or with an inspired mix of pumpkin,
white truffles and scampi (i.e., Adriatic crayfish, the real scampi); veal kidneys with watercress and meaty
porcini mushrooms; veal medallions in champagne and pomegranate sauce; and baby rabbit braised with sweet red
peppers. (Incidentally, peperoni in Italy refers to mild bell-type peppers and has nothing to do with our
spicy “pepperoni” sausage.) Good desserts include homemade ice cream with uva fragole or “strawberry grapes” (so
named for their ber-rylike flavor) and a classic zabaglione. The selection of wines and liqueurs is spectacular.
Marconi, Vicolo Crocioni 6, tel. 274-72. A comfortable, clubby, warm, woody place, mostly decorated with
horse-racing and steeplechase memorabilia. There’s a particularly nice antipasto buffet, and pastas and risottos are
first-rate: miniature gnocchi or bigoli (like fat spaghetti) with Gorgonzola cheese sauce, “black” spaghetti (taking
its color and its rich, briny flavor from cuttlefish ink), the ambrosial “risso alla Drewitt” with salmon and baby
shrimp. As main dishes, there are several kinds of exquisitely baked fresh fish, a beef filet in whiskey sauce, veal
scallops with fresh mushrooms and a savory braised pork shank with the unsavory name of stinco di maiale.
There’s a nice list of the Verona region’s justly famous wines, and the service is good.
Harry’s Bar, Calie Vallaresso 1323, tel. 367.97. This is the original Harry’s Bar, and it remains the best,
by far. Some people think Harry’s is the best restaurant in Italy; it’s certainly among the classiest. Harry’s isn’t
very large. There’s a small, always busy downstairs bar, near which the locals usually dine; and a small, always
busy upstairs dining room (over- ] looking the Grand Canal), favored by Harry’s international set. The feeling is
comfortable and clubby (Marconi’s decor might have been inspired by Harry’s), and the service is refined and
resolutely professional. From the moment you take your seat here, you know you’re going to be well taken care of.
The food? Perfect. Harry’s invented the thinly sliced raw beef dish known as carpaccio and still owns it, as
far as I’m concerned. Another memorable appetizer is San Daniele prosciutto, Italy’s best ham, which is as soft and
sweet as butter. There is usually risotto with seasonal vegetables or with baby cuttlefish as well as pasta dishes
like homemade tagliatelle with meat sauce or ravioli with ricotta and fresh sage. All of them are superb. The fresh
fish here is famous, and there are almost always five or six varieties available either grilled or saut坢ed.
Sometimes there’s fritto misto mare (an assortment of small whole fish and shellfish from the adjacent Adriatic,
deep-fried in a light, crisp batter), which I highly recommend. The rest of the menu ranges from prepared dishes
like polio alla veneta (boned chicken pieces in cream sauce with pink beans) or scampi con capperi (miniature scampi
in a tomato and caper sauce) to such distinctly non-Italian specialties as a club sandwich, a hamburger and chicken
salad. The house Soave and Merlot are very good and very reasonably priced.
Trattoria alla Madonna, Calle della Madonna 594, tel. 238-24. A bright, almost garish, always crowded place,
serving mostly good fresh fish and Venetian regional dishes. This place is much less fine than Harry’s, but it’s
much more fun, in a way. The adventuresome might like to try baby octopus cooked in its own broth, grilled eel or
tartufi di mare (“sea truffles”). Otherwise, there are wonderful scampi, shrimp, mussels and San Pietro (a delicious
perchlike Mediterranean flatfish); a fish soup that is more fish than soup; and fegato alla veneziana, the classic
local combination of calf’s liver and onions saut坢ed in oil.
Enoteca Pinchiorri, Via Ghibellina 87, tel. 21.01.03/24.27.77. This place is really a French restaurant in
disguise, an exponent of la nuova cucina (the Italian version of nouvelle cuisine). It’s an elegant
place, but perhaps a bit too precious and certainly derivative (in the sense that most of its recipes are borrowed
from other French, Swiss and Italian chefs). Why is it included? For three reasons: It is luxuriously beautiful,
especially the enclosed square that is its main dining area; it has the best wine selection in Italy (including
French and even California wines); and the cooking is exquisite. Among the best of the many fine dishes are
scaloppine of pigeon with mushroom mousse; fresh anchovy salad with walnut oil and raspberry vinegar; garlic broth
with fresh thyme; tortelli stuffed with seafood mousse in leek sauce; sweetbread scallops with garlic butter; veal
chops with mustard seeds and tarragon; beef filet with olives and grapes; and saddle of rabbit with lime and basil.
There are also several degustazione (“tasting”) menus that offer tiny portions of eight to 10 dishes. This
may not be much like Italy, but it’s magnificent.
Cibreo, Via dei Macci 118, tel. 677-394. Cibreo is much smaller, less elegant and plainer in kitchen skills
than Pinchiorri, but it is no less unusual. The young proprietors invent some of their own dishes, but otherwise
like to serve only old, authentic Tuscan recipes. One implication of their philosophy is that they offer no pasta or
risotto dishes, and they don’t serve coffee. These things, they argue, aren’t really Tuscan. Instead, they offer
some of the best Italian soups I’ve tasted, made of sweet peppers, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes or whatever else is
fresh and good. These are as rich as any cream-and-butter masterpiece of traditional French cooking, but their
richness comes from the vegetable (or whatever) and from almost syrupy Tuscan olive oil of the highest quality. Then
there are old-style meat and fowl dishes such as a chicken neck, boned and stuffed with herb-spiked ground chicken;
stuffed duck breast with pine nuts; stuffed rabbit; polpettone, a delicate Italian variation on meat loaf (made with
six or eight ingredients, including veal, calf’s brains or duck); and roast veal in a dark reddish-brown wine sauce.
Vegetables might include caramelized baby onions in red wine, baked radicchio (bitter red chicory) or sliced
tomatoes with basil. Desserts are simple but fine-mostly cakes and tarts in the style of a home kitchen.
Le Tre Vaselle, Via Garibaldi 48, tel. 98.20.81/98.24.47. Torgiano is a nondescript little hilltop town in
Umbria, within easy lunch-time-excursion distance of either Florence or Rome and just down the road from the popular
tourist destinations of Perugia and Assisi. The town is known for two things: The winery of Lungarotti, whose
Rubesco and other fine vintages are widely sold in the United States; and the combination hotel/conference
center/wine museum/restaurant of Le Tre Vaselle, which the Lungarotti family owns and operates. The menu is unusual,
featuring specialties from Umbria and the surrounding areas, and the cooking is of the highest quality. The
aforementioned crostini campagnoli and faraona alla ghiotta are nearly always available here, and regina in
porchetta may be special-ordered. Otherwise, your meal might begin with local charcuterie, an assortment of very
fresh grilled vegetables or a cheese-and-ham-filled pastry called torta al testo. Next, you might choose homemade
fettuccine with white wine sauce, tagliolini with salmon or an unforgettable risotto flavored with Solleone
(Lungarotti’s sherrylike aperitif wine). Main courses might be baby pigeons in garlic sauce, roast veal with brown
truffles from nearby Norcia, braised eel from the region’s Lake Trasimeno or crispy duck with rosemary. There is
excellent local pecorino (sheep’s cheese) or mozzarella if you like cheese after a meal; and traditional Umbrian
desserts are also served.
Piccolo Mondo, Via Aurora 39, tel. 48.56.80. Rome is my favorite restaurant town in Italy, and Piccolo Mondo
is among my favorite restaurants in Rome. This was a mecca for the dolce vita of the Fifties and Sixties
(yellowing photographs of both famous and forgotten actors, actresses and directors, cover some of the walls), and
it still draws an attractively casual, quasi jet-set, good-life clientele. Wonderful lasagna, bucatini
all’amatriciana (thin noodles in a peppery sauce of tomatoes, bacon and garlic) and spaghetti with sweet baby clams
in a spicy red sauce are among the best pasta dishes. Quail or chicken alla diavola (flattened out and grilled with
pepper and lemon) are excellent; so is saltimbocca alla romana and the pork loin with broccoli.
Er Cucurucu, Via Capaprati 10, tel.35.44.34. A very different sort of Roman restaurant, peacefully perched on
a palisade abovethe Tiber River. In decent weather, the tablesare outside, and the chef mans a huge open-airgrill.
The cold antipasto table (again, you helpyourself) is good if not superb. Typical Romanpastas-rigatoni
all’amatriciana, spaghetti allaputtanesca (with black olives and red pepperflakes), carbonara (with bacon, eggs
andcheese) and such-are correctly made andgenerously presented. There is an unusual dishof grilled scamorze cheese,
and grilled orroasted meats are never disappointing. Best ofall, though, is the country-inn feeling of theplace:
Sitting at the simply appointed tablesoutside, or even at the slightly more elaborateones inside, you’ll feel like
you’re in somerather run-down but romantic Roman hillsidevilla-or in an urban Roman villa of an earlier,quieter,
FRANCE MAY BE the best place in Europe to dine, but Italy is the best place to eat. In France, a good meal is