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Una Bella Mangiata in Italia

by Jennie Schacht

There is no end to the inspired restaurants and delectable edibles scattered throughout Italy's culinary landscape. Even the most unassuming streetside caff is likely to answer the grumbles of a hungry stomach more eloquently in Italy than in almost any other part of the world. Still, some of the country's hosterie, trattorie, and ristoranti (from the casual to the more formal) stand head and shoulders above the others. Below are six "destination" restaurants -- places worth going a little out of your way to visit. But please, don't ignore the treasures of those little neighborhood bars and caffs offering salads and panini (little sandwiches); they are the heart and soul of Italy. (Prices, where given in American dollars, reflect an exchange rate of approximately 1600 lira to the dollar, and are rounded to the nearest dollar.)

Il Cibro
Via dei Macci 118r at Via Andrea del Verrocchio
50122 Firenze
Phone: 055/2341100
Lunch and Dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Reservations recommended.

After climbing 463 steps to see the view from the top of the Duomo, you'll want to reward yourself with a good lunch. And if you are looking for a peek into the dining trends of the upscale Tuscan set while you are lunching, head for Cibro. Fabio Picchi and his wife Benedetta Vitali offer sumptuous cuisine based on home-style cooking from the Tuscan countryside in this lovely ristorante. Service reflects the elegance of the setting, yet remains personable and friendly.

The meal begins with a complimentary glass of wine and an assortment of palate teasers--which might include liver pat-topped crostini (little toasts), a light ricotta souffl, strips of veal in olive oil, and a spicy gelatin-topped tomato mold, all served with good potato bread rolls. This generous welcome buys a little time to warm up the appetite while perusing the menu.

The menu lists a handful of selections for each course, each offered at the same price: You pay by the number and type of courses you select, not by the individual selection. This is a nice feature, in that it allows the diner to be swayed by her taste and not her pocketbook. The menu includes several choices of primi piatti, secondi piatti, and dolci. If you are fortunate, the primi will include passato di peperoni gialli, a flavorful pure of yellow peppers and potatoes served with croutons, or a pumpkin soup topped with crushed biscotti. Other starters might include farinata col cavolo nero, a parmesan-enriched cornmeal mush served with that rare black cabbage found only in a Tuscan winter, or ribollita, a bread and vegetable soup -- a way to use up leftovers, really -- originating from the area.

Secondi might include a polpettine di ricotta e vitella (rich veal and ricotta croquettes) served in a light tomato-basil sauce, perfectly steamed salmon scented with sage and rosemary, or trippa alla parmagiana (Vitali says tripe in Italy is good only in Florence, where they know how to cook it), with contorni (sides) of radicchio rosso al forno (red radicchio baked in red wine and olive oil), potatoes mashed with white beans, or capelle di funghi al cartoccio (mushroom caps baked in foil).

For dessert, don't miss Cibro's panna cotta, an exquisite rendition of that ultra-rich Italian specialty of cooked cream, served here with a luxuriously smooth caramel sauce. Other sweets might include a cheesecake baked with a marmalade topping, or a double-crusted pear tart with raisins.

A full lunch for two comes to 146,000 lira, or about $90. If that sounds like a lot to spend, keep in mind that lunch commonly is the day's main meal in Italy. On the way out, don't forget to stop in the little Alimentari (grocery store), which offers an assortment of wines, Tuscan olive oils, dried porcini mushrooms, aged balsamic vinegar (one bottle kept in a locked glass case goes for nearly $100), and other specialties. Also available (in English as well as Italian) is a down-to-earth little book of the restaurant's most requested recipes, along with Vitali's delightful commentary on cooking. "If, in the execution of more than habitual gestures, we were able to make you smile even once," Vitali writes, "the result would already be worthwhile." Such is the spirit of her recipe book; such is the spirit of Cibro.

Harry's Bar
San Marco 1323
30124 Venezia
Phone: 041/5285777
Lunch and Dinner. Closed Monday.
Reservations recommended.
Harry's Cipriani, New York
Phone: 212-753-5566

Harry's Bar is conveniently situated on the periphery of the Piazza San Marco, Venice's legendary grand plaza boasting the Basilica di San Marco, Doges' Palace, and several caffs sporting outdoor orchestrini (little orchestras) that compete one against the other in hamming up the Italian classics. Harry's is a favorite with tourists and Italians alike. (There aren't many actual Venetians here -- on a given day about 70% of the people you'll encounter in Venice are day visitors and tourists, according to a local gondola driver.) Ask to sit upstairs by the window for a terrific vista over the Canal Grande.

The biggest surprise at this venerable Venetian venue is bound to be the bill, so it is perhaps best that I begin by preparing you for the sticker shock you'll likely experience when you open the menu. On a recent visit, il conto (the check) came to 319,200 lira for a simple lunch for three. That translates to about $200, or around $67 per person. Even the coperto, the typical Italian cover charge for bread and a place setting, is unusually high, at about $7.50 per person. Service is included in the bill (10%), so no additional tip is expected. Yet, it is with due respect for your pocket book that, still, I am compelled to recommend a visit to Harry's.

One of my companions began with a Bellini ($10), that refreshing Italian cocktail of peach nectar and spumante (sparkling wine), named for the Italian painter and said to have originated here. We also sampled a quarter carafe (a little more than a glass) of the house vino rosso ($8) and acqua minerale, available all over Italy either gassato (carbonated) or senza gas (still).

We shared two appetizers among the three of us. Zuppa di carciofi ($15) produced a veritable tureen of creamy soup, soothing and abundant with artichoke flavor, more than enough for two. The verdura ($11) brought a platter of mixed vegetables, steamed and sauted, served at room temperature, anointed with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar. I would have liked this better warm.

For the second course, we each tried a different pasta ($29-31). We stingily protected our plates, barely willing to share a bite, each believing our selection to be the ultimate. The special was tagliarelle, a spinach-tinted pasta, enriched with a curry-scented sauce full of vegetables and small pieces of tender chicken. We were traveling in October, at the height of mushroom season, and the mushroom lover among us ordered either a grilled portabella or some type of pasta ai funghi at nearly every meal. Here, she sat dreamy-eyed, meandering through a seemingly endless tangle of tagliarini con funghi di stagione, a narrower pasta, packed with seasonal wild mushrooms. The third dish sported a wider pasta, tagliardi con rag di anitra -- richly flavored with a sauce of ground duck.

Every bite of each of these three works of art carried us one step closer to heaven. The pasta was perfectly smooth and supple -- not a second over or underdone. It married with the sauce seamlessly, creating an entirely new flavor, different from any of the individual ingredients. Better yet, just as we found ourselves fighting the urge to put tongue to plate in a final effort to savor the remaining droplets of those intensely flavorful sauces, the waiter reappeared and asked whether we might be ready for more. Though we hadn't noticed, when the waiter served our pastas from the small table just behind us, he had left nearly half of the goods under shining silver covers for a blissful second memory. The second time around we were a good bit more charitable, sharing our delights with one another. In the end, we just couldn't finish it all.

The funny thing is, Harry's Bar isn't even known for its pasta -- its reputation is built on fish and seafood (try the Sevruga caviar for $188, if you dare), carpaccio alla Cipriani (also reputed to have been introduced there), and the exceptional risotto. We ended the meal too completely sated (and impoverished) to sample the desserts, but a strong cappuccino ($4) saved us from succumbing to post-prandial drowsiness. While no doubt one pays dearly to share in the notoriety of the establishment, I have to say I'd do it again for that pasta alone. This was far and away the best pasta any of us tasted anywhere in a country where pasta reigns supreme.

If a trip to Venice isn't in your plans, you might discover a bit of Venetian flavor at Harry's Cipriani in New York. I can't say I've been there, but it is hard to imagine it could capture the glory of dining, overlooking the Canal Grande, on some of the world's most perfect pasta.

Locanda Cipriani
Torcello Piazza S. Fosca
30012 Torcello-Venezia
Phone: 041/730150
Lunch and Dinner. Closed Tuesday; closed November through February.
Reservations recommended.

Also owned by the Cipriani family (Harry's Bar, the Hotel Cipriani) is the Locanda Cipriani, on the serene little island of Torcello, a half-hour ride by vaparetto (public water bus) from Venice. Venice is, in fact, surrounded by several small islands: Murano, famous for its blown glass; Burano for its lace; and Torcello for the lovely Laconda.

Torcello is believed once to have served as a refuge for Venetians fleeing the barbarians. In 1938, Giuseppe Cipriani opened this locanda (inn), which now is managed by his grandson, Bonifacio Brass. The Locanda boasts a guestbook of past visitors that includes Ernest Hemingway, Paul Newman, Charlie Chaplin, and the entire Royal Family of England.

Lunch at the Locanda is most captivating on the outdoor patio, under wisteria and grapevine-lined trellises, looking out into the gardens. The restaurant offers a full list of excellent Italian wines, along with a few beers, and we began by settling in with a caraffa of the gentle house red. We quickly moved past gli antipasti and began with a sampling of the days primi piatti, which included gnocchetti di patate all mediterranea, tagliolini verdi gratinati al prosciutto (each $13), and verdure al forne ($6), The gnocchetti brought tender little potato dumplings with a light but intensely flavorful sauce of pesto and tomato. The tagliolini was rich with prosciutto, parmesan, cream and butter; the verdure (vegetables) oven-roasted to a turn.

Second courses are offered here freddi (cold), including salads and the Cipriani's famed carpaccio, or caldi (hot). Selections offer a wide range of fresh fish and seafood, including grilled seabass, mixed fried fish, sole, salmon and monkfish. The area's reputation for fine seafood not withstanding, we were won over by a spezzato di pollo ($13), a half chicken braised in a rich reduction of stock, adorned with country-style vegetables, herbs and wine, and served with a firm-soft polenta. The mushroom lover among us, true to form, made a secondi of the tagliatelle ai funghi di stagione, listed on the menu as a primi piatti.

We could manage just one dessert among the three of us from the temptations on a table-side cart (all about $9), and as it happened, the ponderous slice of a cross between a cake and a flaky napoleon proved plenty for all, accompanied by caff and cappuccino. Service here is exemplary -- not quite so stand-offish as Harry's Bar, but equally gracious and formal. This doting service is financed by a five dollar coperto and a 15% service charge, bringing the ticket for this superb meal to about $50 per person.

Paris Ristorante
Piazza S. Calisto, 7A
00153 Roma
Phone: 06/5815378
Lunch and Dinner. Closed Monday; Sunday lunch only.
Reservations recommended.

When in Rome, do as the Romans -- dine in Paris! This restaurant is named not for the great city in France, but for the Trojan prince who abducted Helen, wife of Spartan king Menelaus, instigating the Trojan War in the 12th century B.C.E. A group of Trojans fled the area after the war and ended up founding Rome. Paris specializes not in French food, but in Roman cuisine.

Paris is located in the Trastevere district, first home of Europe's oldest Jewish community, which even today remains a relatively untouched section of the city. We crossed the Tiber to arrive at Paris on a nice, balmy evening, but we chose to dine inside after noticing a rather marked slant to the patio that seemed to foretell a precarious dining experience. As it turned out, the dining room was quite a bit cozier. Besides, it offered a perfect view of the fish tank, portending the restaurant's excellent selection of swimmingly fresh seafood specialties.

The adept kitchen staff will help you select a fish to meet your taste, and will prepare it in a style to suit both you and your selection. One night, a sea bass ($18) was grilled to perfection and served simply, dressed with flavorful Italian olive oil and kosher salt, bringing out the sweet flavor of the flaky flesh. The kitchen also knows its way around a cut of meat: scallopine of veal was prepared with lemon, wine and herbs, or sauted with porcini mushrooms (each $13). Carciofi alla giudea ($10), a specialty of the Roman Jews and still popular throughout this city, brought two perfect artichokes, flattened and deep fried, with nary a suggestion of the oil it was fried in, save the perfume of good olives. Ravioli ($10) was housemade, stuffed with a smooth blend of spinach and ricotta brightened with lemon, and served in a simple sauce of butter and sage. Wine selections were well matched to the menu. Desserts were less impressive: the crme brule (where did we think we were, Paris?) was more like a crme caramel, lacking the supreme richness and crackling crust of a true brule. Fresh fruit brought a large bowl with a nice but uninspired selection of the season's offerings.

Ristorante La Nuova Maiella
Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo
18, Roma
Phone: 06/6864174
Lunch and Dinner. Closed Sunday; closed part of August.
Reservations recommended.

Venture a short walk from Piazza Navona--that vast elliptical plaza with three grand central fountains...turn the corner from Campo de' Fiori -- a buzzing open-air marketplace that veritably bursts with color and life in a gorgeous display of local produce and fresh flowers...find your way past the Teatro di Pompeo -- where Caesar met his maker on that fateful Ides of March, and there you will come upon Ristorante La Nuova Maiella. Considering its illustrious neighbors, this really is rather an unassuming kind of a place. The room has a down-to-earth feel about it; the casual, friendly service suits the restaurant's "dinner at a friend's house" ambiance. The kitchen specializes in seafood and the typical cuisine of Rome; still, you can easily get lost making your way through the lengthy menu.

On the way in, take a stroll by the antipasti table, showcasing the day's specialties. These might include grilled eggplants wrapped around baccal (salt cod); steamed and roasted vegetables dressed with the finest olive oil and balsamic vinegar; deep-fried zucchini blossoms; artichokes and mushrooms served with prosciutto; or sauted clams ($4-11).

I had reached a near-giddy state after polishing off the complimentary plate of buttery little pastries served with olives, cherry tomatoes and a glass of light, slightly fruity spumante, when I was abruptly brought down by the waiter, who informed me that the risotto verde, with a creamy sauce of asparagus, would not be available that night after all. In its place, he was quick to recommend the tagliolini al limone e cannella ($6). And while my California low-fat sensibility nearly prevented me from even deigning to imagine I could make my way through an entire order of pasta in lemon cream, he seemed so terribly confident in the selection that I agreed before I had a chance to think the better of it. And was I glad I did! Many months later, I still find my way into a peaceful sleep by floating in a reverie inspired by that thin, flat fettucini, cooked not a bit too soft nor too toothsome, afloat in cream and fresh lemon (with seeds to prove it), decorated oh-so-sparingly with a gentle sprinkling of cinnamon. Almost dessert-like but not sweet, it achieved that exquisite combination of texture and taste that defines comfort food. Simple though it seems, I don't dare try to reproduce it at home.

Other stand-outs at this popular spot include the tonarelli alle vongole veraci -- square-cut pasta with two-horned clams ($10); fettuccine al tartufo nero -- flat noodles in a cream sauce fragrant with black truffles ($10); saltimbocca alla romana -- veal scallopine with ham and fresh herbs ($9); and melanzane alla parmigiana -- eggplant baked with mozzarella, parmigiana and fresh tomato sauce ($6) -- eminently more flavorful than the version you're likely to find in an "Italian" restaurant in the U.S. A contorni or two for the table ($3-4 each)--say some sauted greens or fagiolini (small white beans) -- rounds out an already generous meal. Anything with rughetta is always a good choice in Italy, where it is grown wild and is spicier than the arugula (also known as rocket) we're accustomed to in the States.

If the complimentary spumante whets your appetite for more, you can select from several decent house wines. Desserts include assorted cheeses and fruits, ice creams (including a lemon and vodka sorbetto or ice cream flavored with whisky), and pastries ($4-5). All told, a bountiful dinner here came to just $21 per person, including two courses, beverages and dessert.

Ristorante Vignale
Via XX Settembre n. 23
53107 Radda in Chianti (Siena)
Phone: 0577/738094
Lunch and dinner. Closed Thursday.
Reservations highly recommended.
Relais Fattoria Vignale
Phone: 0577/738300

Is it possible I have extolled so effusively the virtues of these eateries, yet still have saved one of the best for last? If I were to return to Italy for only one meal, I would indeed face a difficult choice. Certainly, the enchanting Ristorante Vignale, nestled resplendent in the Tuscan countryside between Siena and Florence, would be in the running.

This is the restaurant of the lovely Relais Fattoria Vignale, a graciously restored 19th-century manor house, just down the block from the restaurant. The Relais offers a perfectly restful spot to lay your head against a soft pillow after a rich dinner in the ristorante, as well as a dandy little breakfast to set you back on your way through the Chianti vineyards in the morning.

Ristorante Vignale achieves a bewitching harmony of country charm and urban sophistication. It is decidedly romantic, yet comfortably informal. The regular menu is supplemented with daily specials, reflecting the best of the season and including updates on some homey standards. A six-course tasting menu ($47) also is offered, "if you trust us and are hungry."

We began with a ricotta al forno ($9), a fresh ricotta baked with creamy eggplant, flavorful dried tomatoes, and olives. Another starter brought porcini mushrooms baked in foil with aromatic fresh herbs, slivers of garlic and olive oil ($16). A layered mold of baked ricotta and spring onions looked pretty as a picture atop a pool of salmon-hued tomato sauce. A stunning loin of lamb was seared, then roasted to rosy perfection; joining it on the plate were stewed baby artichokes and a creamy pure of potatoes and celeriac, all bathed in an intense reduction of the meat's flavorful juices ($21). A timballino di pasta brought porcini mushrooms wrapped up in a packet with wide lasagna noodles and baked in a rich porcini stock, adorned with little pools of scented oil ($13). A plate of gnocchi ($11) showcased large dumplings of semolina, napped with a vegetable sauce and topped with aged Italian cheese. A mound of cold eggplant pure in the center of these piping hot gnocchi, while quite tasty in its own right, was somehow out of place.

The indulgent desserts include a generous semifreddo of vanilla ice cream shaped around an amaretti cookie center, served in a pool of dark chocolate, decorated with halved grapes and finished with a dusting of cocoa ($9).

Glasses of Vignale's own Chianti Classico (the restaurant is situated right smack in the middle of the Chianti Classico region) and Vignale Bianco, and a crisp Rosato Toscano, complemented the meal perfectly. The restaurant offers an extensive and sophisticated list of other wines as well.

It seemed fitting to conclude such a pleasing meal with a glass of grappa, that ultra-strong Italian spirit distilled from fermented grape pomace. After observing me taking a sip or two the waitress, looking somewhat askance, ventured in her best English, "how do you like it?" "Not bad," I replied, "it tastes a little bit like brandy, actually." "Really," she returned, "I think it tastes rather like petrol!"

Preparing To Dine Out In Italy
Italian diners generally don't go to dinner until about 9 p.m. Although reservations are recommended at many of the restaurants listed, it generally is not difficult to get a table before 8 p.m. Most restaurants don't open for dinner until at least 7:00 p.m. The big meal of the day typically is lunch, though restaurants are always prepared for tourists who expect their main meal in the evening. Actually, it does make sense to have the larger meal at noontime in Italy, when you'll have plenty of time to walk it off traipsing around seeing the sights.

If you don't speak much Italian, you can make your reservation and impress the person answering the phone (who probably will understand your English just fine) by saying, "Vorrei fare una prenotazione per stasera (tonight) domani sera (tomorrow night) per le diccianove e trenta (19:30, or 7:30)."

If you prefer to go meatless, try one or more of the following:

Sono vegetariano/vegetariana. (I'm vegetarian -- different ending if you are male or female)

Contiene carne questo piatto? (Does this dish contain meat?)

Si pu preparare questo piatto senza carne o i prodotti di carne? (Is it possible to prepare this dish without meat or meat products?)

Still, you'll want to be careful. Sometimes a waiter will answer "no" to the question, "contiene carne?", but "yes" to "contiene pollo" (chicken), or even agnello (lamb) or vitella (veal). It may be best to ask a few different ways. Most menus include a good selection of vegetarian options.

Touring Italy On The Internet
For more comprehensive listings of places to eat (as well as places to see and things to do) in Italy, you can get a good taste of Italy without leaving your desk by poking around the World Wide Web. For weather forecasts, go to USA Today's Weather Page, where you will find weather information for Italy's major cities, including Florence, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin, and Venice. City Net also brings you lots of information about Italian destinations. If you're working on what to say once you get to Italy, try using the English-to-Italian Dictionary. It's a little slow and translates only one word at a time, but it is a good resource. For general travel information, try Keyword: Travel on America Online, or the travel sections of other online services.

By the time you're finished, you might just find yourself booking an express ticket to Rome.

Jennie Schacht is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. Her books include The Wine Lover's Dessert Cookbook (with Mary Cech) and Without Reservations (with Joey Altman). Her company, Schacht & Associates, consults to public health and food industry clients.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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