Food Lover's Guide to Italy

View on the amalfi coast

View on the amalfi coast

a chef's recommendations for rome and beyond

Last week I returned from a truly magical honeymoon to Italy.  Since so many of my readers and students generously shared their recommendations for my trip, I wanted to pay it forward by condensing all my tips into one post.

A couple of disclaimers/notes to help you make the most of this roundup:

  • I eat vegetarian with the occasional sustainably-sourced fish.  My husband (still getting used to that word!) eats everything.  It's pretty easy to eat vegetarian in Italy at any restaurant, so that wasn't an issue, but it's why you won't see me raving about more regional specialties like Trippa a la Romana and Wild Boar Salami in this roundup (both of which my husband enjoyed).
  • Since our trip was a honeymoon and not just a vacation or a food-focused trip, I skipped more intense experiences like classes, restaurant stages, or visits to local food producers, in favor of more relaxed activities we would both enjoy. 
How do you say 2 scoops of gelato, plase in  italian?

How do you say 2 scoops of gelato, plase in  italian?

Favorite Restaurants in Rome

One of the top things I've heard from visitors to Italy is that all the food is good, no matter if you are at a highway rest stop or a 3-star restaurant.  We found that to be pretty true!  While we weren't blown away by the fine dining experiences we had, we were shocked that every glass of wine we had and every pizza or casual bakery we popped into was fantastic, no matter how low the price point.  Here are a couple of top picks:

Pane e Salame--This tiny restaurant near Trevi fountain specializes in beautifully arranged meat, cheese, and bread boards.  We found this "snacky dinner" a perfect counterpoint to heavier and fancier meals we'd be having in Rome.  I was also quite pleased that they also had a vegetarian board with roasted zucchini and eggplant, bruschettas with tomato and tapenade, and cheese and onion jam.  Bonus? Our dinner with 2 glasses of wine cost less than $20.  

Glass Hostaria--Glass Hostaria is considered by some to be the best fine dining in Rome.  We had dishes like a 65 degree poached egg, parmesan ravioli, and cod with salsify and miso.  We agreed this was our best meal in Rome, but it's definitely not classic Roman.  Give it a shot if you like more creative fine dining or need a break from the more traditional Roman trattorias and restaurants.

Best Food Tour in Rome

Going on a food tour has become one of my favorite ways to see a city since I gave food tours myself in Chicago years ago.  We booked a private tour with Sophie Minchilli, a Roman local and daughter of food writer Elizabeth Minchilli to take us around the Trastevere neighborhood.  We loved going across the river for a quieter experience and hands-down loved all the food she got for us from pizza, gelato, cookies, suppli (Roman arancini) and more.

I've done bigger food tours but I loved this intimate experience.  She only does private or very small group tours so they shop owners all adore her and she has interesting stories to tell.  We did the tour with Sophie on our 3rd day in Rome but in retrospect we would have done it our first day to get a better lay of the land and learn how to order properly sooner.

Favorite Italian Cocktail

I soon nicknamed the apertivo hours before dinner "spritz o'clock" because I became obsessed with the national apertif of Italy, the Spritz.  Simultaneously light and refreshing and slightly bitter, it's the perfect cocktail to sip outside on a 90 degree day.  If you want to make your own at home (like I have been) or order one in a bar here, the recipe is as follows: 3 ounces prosecco, 2 ounces Aperol, 1 ounce soda water.  You'll also find spritzes made with Campari (my favorite!) and limoncello in the Amalfi Coast.

spritz o'clock

spritz o'clock

Best Seafood on the Amalfi Coast

Although you can also get away with eating vegetarian on the Amalfi Coast (look for gnocchi a la sorrentina on menus for a great pasta dish), if you do eat seafood, this coast is where to get it.  With small fishing boats going out into the water every day and coming back to the seaside restaurants you won't find fresher or more varied menus.  We stayed in Amalfi and Sorrento and found the best place to get seafood was Ristorante Bagni Delfino in Sorrento.  Sorrento is not quite the true Amalfi coast (it's considered the gateway) but we stayed there instead of Naples to make a day trip to Pompeii before we went deeper into the coast.  If you just have a night in Sorrento, definitely make it to Bagni Delfino.  We had the catch of the day along with the insalata di mare shown below.

insalata di mare at bagni delfino

insalata di mare at bagni delfino

Best Pizza in Rome

Pizza anywhere is a touchy subject (ask any Chicagoan) but I've found discussing Italian pizza can lead to arguments.  While Naples is the birthplace of pizza, you'll also find it everywhere in Rome.  On Sophie's tour, she taught us about the distinct kinds of pizza you'll find in Rome including pizza bianca, a no-cheese pizza that you'll find only in bakeries.  We had the one below with sliced potatoes, rosemary and olive oil in Trastevere.  Fantastic.

Pizza bianca in trastevere

Pizza bianca in trastevere

Best Gelato Flavors

It's hard to pick a favorite gelato spot.  If you've been to Rome, you know they are everywhere and when you eat it 1-2x a day....well it also gets hard to remember.  My favorite flavors though were cafe (also a favorite of mine here) and surprisingly a lot of the fruit flavored varieties like melon and vanilla with lemon.  Sophie also took us to a very old-school place in Trastevere that had rice-flavored gelato with pieces of rice in it.

Must-try Pastry

Italian bakeries to me in the U.S. have always been a little bit of a disappointment.  I love the look of them and how you can buy cookies by the pound, but I have never actually enjoyed a cookie that I've eaten at one.  They always seem to be so sawdusty and crumbly.  However, Biscottificio Innocenti in Rome turned me around on Italian cookies.  From light meringues to jam-filled sandwiches, every cookie we bought from there (and subsequently scarfed down in the park) was delicious.

However, I think my favorite pastry itself is found in the southern part of Italy, including the Amalfi Coast: sfogliatella riccia, a flaky phyllo clamshell filled with orange-scented ricotta.  We sampled them throughout the trip, but our favorite sfogliatella riccia was actually from the Naples train station!

Best Day-Trip from Rome

We didn't want to spend our whole trip moving from hotel to hotel so we actually spent our first 5 days in Rome, taking one day-trip to Tuscany.  We did a food-focused tour through Walks of Italy that had 8 people plus our hilarious tour guide Andrea.  We visited specialty food shops in Pienza, had lunch on an olive oil farm, sampled wines at a Montalcino winery run by a 90-year old man named Mario, and visited an old castle.  While wine, coffee, and a van ride might not be the best combination for some, we loved the all-day trip.  

ORGANIC OLIVE OIL FARM AND GARDEN IN TUSCANY

ORGANIC OLIVE OIL FARM AND GARDEN IN TUSCANY

Important Etiquette Rules and Travel Tips

Although it's likely that as a tourist you will make a fool of yourself at some point during your trip, I like to try as much as possible to adapt to the local customs.  Even if I botch an Italian word, I always want to show my appreciation for the culture rather than traveling all the way to Italy to live exactly the way I do in the U.S.

So here are a few etiquette tips we learned along the way:

  • All about coffee: When you order a "cafe" you are ordering an espresso not a drip coffee.  While you can order a cafe all day, only drink a cappuccino at breakfast or before 11am.  Italians think coffee with milk is too difficult to digest after breakfast.  Also know that ordering a "latte" will only get you milk, no coffee.
  • All about wine: I'm not a wine expert, but I did find that every glass of wine I had in Italy was pretty good.  Wine is very low-priced throughout the country by the bottle or by the glass.  We typically couldn't finish a whole bottle of wine at dinner (especially after all those spritzes!) but found that wine by the glass can always be ordered, even if it's not on the menu.  They call it "local wine" but we found it to be much better than table or house wine that we've had in the U.S.  While it might be common to have a glass of wine on its own here in the U.S., Italians consider wine something you always have with food or a meal.
  • More drink rules: While wine is served with a meal, there are also specific pre-dinner drinks (apertifs like the spritz) and post-dinner drinks like amaro, grappa, and limoncello.  You'll usually find some indication of this on the menu or you might find that a waiter is happy to "correct" your order.
  • Restaurant quirks: If you don't like the bread basket with your meal, feel free to decline it before they set it down on your table.  You'll often pay a few euros for it.  Similarly, Italian restaurants almost always served bottled water, not tap, so you'll be asked if you want still or sparkling when you sit down.
  • Need help booking?: Since our honeymoon was right after our wedding, we enlisted the help of Steph Worth from Travelworthy, a small Chicago-based company that plans custom travel itineraries.  Steph booked our lodging and transport from city to city and helped us find a few tours, while we planned the other details.  We LOVED using her services--I didn't have to spend hours on TripAdvisor comparing hotels.  Instead I spent those hours finding our good food spots.

Any other Italian food and travel recommendations?  Share your favorites in the comments below.