Here in Australia, travelling is something of a national pastime. That’s why you’ll find Australians in all corners of the world, taking in the sights and enjoying the best that other cultures have to offer. Of all of the potential destinations we have to choose from, though, there’s one that attracts more attention than all of the others: Italy.
Australians choose Italy as a travel destination more than any other foreign country, and with good reason. It’s a country with a rich history, filled with ancient buildings and world-famous artwork around every turn. Even efforts to extend a subway line within Rome have had repeated delays because they can’t seem to dig more than a few metres without unearthing a new archaeological site.
As amazing as Italy’s culture and history are, though, there’s one thing that brings more Australians to the country than any other: the food. Italian cuisine is known throughout the world and is often a staple in other places from New York to Sydney. For foodies, going to Italy is like making a pilgrimage to a holy site; something that they simply must do once (or several times) within their lifetime.
To make the most of it, though, first-time foodie visitors to Italy should bone up on the etiquette and best practises of Italian dining. To help, here’s a foodie’s guide to visiting Italy.
Don’t be a tourist
For a foodie visiting Italy, there is one bit of advice that should form the basis of everything you do (and eat) while in the country. That advice is to avoid behaving like a tourist at all costs. By that, I mean venturing out away from tourist spots and famous sights to find the best food the country has to offer. Not only will this save you quite a bit of money, but it will also help you to avoid restaurants that offer modified or watered-down versions of Italian dishes who are hoping to cater to foreign palates. It’s not that they serve bad food, mind you – far from it – but if you wanted a foreign take on real Italian cuisine you could just stay at home.
Understand how menus work
In Italy, eating isn’t just a necessity of life; it’s an experience to be savoured. For that reason, even casual restaurants serve meals in different courses, and you need to understand what they are to know what to choose. The specific cuisine may vary from place to place, but in general, you will find menus divided thusly:
- Antipasti – This is the Italian appetizer course. Unlike in other places, however, appetizers in Italy can consist of large meat and cheese platters, rich bruschetta, and various vegetable offerings. If you’re alone, beware – you may be full before getting to the other parts of your meal.
- Primi – The first full course, where you will find all of the pasta you’ve been dreaming of. You will also find soups, risotto, and a number of other regional specialities, depending on where you are. If you’re not used to large meals, you may find this course to be sufficient as a meal in and of itself.
- Secondi – The second course, where you will find meat, poultry and fish dishes. They’ll arrive by themselves, with no sides. This is so you can enjoy the flavour of the dish with nothing competing with it unless you choose another item yourself.
- Contorni – This is the most confusing of all meal courses for foreigners. It is where you’ll find items you’d consider side dishes, and they may be ordered at the same time as your secondi choice. Any grilled items will arrive with the secondi dish, but salads and the like will arrive only when you’ve completed your secondi dish.
- Dolci – Put simply, it’s dessert. Here you’ll find fruits, cakes, gelatos, and regional sweets of all kinds. It’s the cherry on top of your sumptuous Italian meal experience.
When you’ve finished your meal, make sure to order an espresso, or un caffé in local parlance. Don’t be surprised if this is a habit that you bring home with you – so make sure to get to know the different Italian blends while you’re there so you can pick a favourite.
Explore alone, with help
To find the best food that Italy has to offer, you’re going to have to do a little bit of exploration. I’ve found that within the major cities, you’re better off finding a local guide to help you, due to the overwhelming number of options. For example, this Florence private food tour will match you up with a local guide that knows everything there is to know about the regional specialities and can take you to multiple locations that have what you’re looking for.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore on your own, however. One of the greatest things about visiting Italy as a foodie is that you already have a way to find something delicious everywhere you go: your own nose. On a trip to Venice, that’s how I found what came to be my favourite restaurant in all of Italy, Trattoria Al Gazzettino. Located mere steps from Piazza San Marco; I was lured there by the most delicious smell I’ve ever encountered, which led me through the warren of unfamiliar Venetian alleyways. It’s the kind of experience no true foodie should miss – so follow your nose!
If you’re a foodie that wants to make Italy your next travel destination, you should now know enough to make the most of your trip. You’ll find that real Italian cuisine is both delicious and incomparable and that it’s well worth the trip just to try it. Of course, you shouldn’t forget to see all of the famous sights and historical treasures – just make sure to stop as often as you can to sample the best foods that Italy has to offer, and you’ll treasure the experience for a lifetime!