Insider Secrets of Eating in Italy While exploring small-town Italy over the years, we've found amazing restaurants that feel like you're eating at Grandma's house! They’re not fancy, not expensive, and they will offer some of the best meals you’ll have in Italy. Budget Travel Tuesday, Feb 16, 2016, 9:00 AM Everyone loves Italy for the food. If you’re into impeccable service, white tablecloths, and artistic plating, there are many wonderful places to experience Italy’s high cuisine. But if crumb-sweepers and vintage-specific wine glasses are not your thing, and you’d rather not worry about whether you’ve used the wrong fork for your insalata, look for one of these places that we call Cucina Nonna—Grandma’s Kitchen. For traditional, authentic, and delicious Italian food, this kind of place can’t be beat—very casual, informal, where someone’s grandmother is serving up traditional food, doing her thing her way as she has been for decades. (Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker) Budget Travel LLC, 2016
 

VACATION IDEAS

Insider Secrets of Eating in Italy

While exploring small-town Italy over the years, we've found amazing restaurants that feel like you're eating at Grandma's house! They’re not fancy, not expensive, and they will offer some of the best meals you’ll have in Italy.

  • Matt And Giovanna At Mazzalasino
  • Mazzalasino Pasta Duo
  • Trattoria La Buca
  • Trattoria La Buca meat and cheese
  • Trattoria Delle Stelle
  • Il Fantino Artwork
  • Il Fantino Ravioli
  • Cicale Bavarese
  • La Buca Delle Fate
  • Ristorante Anna Ravioli
  • Baralla Castagnaccio
  • Da Mario Sandwich Board
  • Da Mario Apricot Tart

Everyone loves Italy for the food. If you’re into impeccable service, white tablecloths, and artistic plating, there are many wonderful places to experience Italy’s high cuisine. But if crumb-sweepers and vintage-specific wine glasses are not your thing, and you’d rather not worry about whether you’ve used the wrong fork for your insalata, look for one of these places that we call Cucina Nonna—Grandma’s Kitchen. For traditional, authentic, and delicious Italian food, this kind of place can’t be beat—very casual, informal, where someone’s grandmother is serving up traditional food, doing her thing her way as she has been for decades.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Ristorante Mazzalasino, Mazzalasino (Emilia Romagna): We list this as a 'destination restaurant' on our website because it's a very local-approved, very low-key, inexpensive, traditional place. The decor is outdated, the toilets are old-fashioned holes with ceramic feet, and when you drive up, it feels like you are driving up to an old American Legion hall. That said, they make everything by hand, are passionate about food, and want you to feel welcome and cared for. There are only two or three items for each course, and there are no menus, so they just come to the table and tell you what they have. If you order the antipasti plate of local salumi and parmigiano reggiano, be prepared to receive a gigantic platter. Because it's a small restaurant, and everything is made by hand, plan to spend some time in between courses. The house lambrusco (local, fizzy, chilled red wine) is excellent and comes in an unmarked wine bottle. They always offer a 'bis' or 'tris' of pasta, meaning instead of having just one style of pasta, you can order two or all three they have that day (in tasting portions). Try to save room for the meat course (secondi), as many of them are local cuts roasted in the wood oven. After dinner, be sure to ask for the nocino (walnut liqueur), they usually have one that is made in-house, in an unmarked bottle of course. Prices here are low, so don't worry that you can't see prices on the (nonexistent) menu. Giovanna is an incredibly warm and lovely host who treats you like family. They will not bring a bill to your table; you need to go up to the till to pay when you are ready to leave. They will seriously sit there after the entire restaurant has evacuated, patiently waiting for you to pay—we, of course, learned this the hard way, as we spent 45 minutes waiting for a bill, only to discover that they were politely waiting for us to settle up. A lovely restaurant for a truly authentic, old world experience.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Trattoria La Buca, Zibello (Emilia Romagna): We've eaten culatello in many restaurants in Emila Romagna, but especially near Zibello. For the uninitiated, culatello is the pricier, more 'upscale' version of prosciutto. It's made from the best part of the leg, takes longer to cure, can only be made by those with the proper expertise, and has to be made to exacting standards to get the DOP label of Zibello. This makes it one of the most expensive salumi in Italy. So we headed out on a mission to find the best culatello in Zibello and we can say we've found it—at Trattoria La Buca. Zibello is a tiny, two-street town, and down a dusty, single-lane road you'll find this locally famous Trattoria. They cure their own culatello in their cantina, and one day, they let us inside to experience its sights and (powerful, incredible) scents.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

In the warmer months Trattoria La Buca has a very large, beautiful outdoor patio completely covered over in wisteria. Everything here is handmade, and they take great pride in the quality of the food and wine, which they make in house. We began, of course, with a plate of culatello. It was served with fresh butter and fresh peeled figs. Grab a hunk of bread, spread some soft butter, add a paper-thin, nearly transparent slice of culatello, fork a bite of juicy fig... heaven. The menu is very small, as everything is made in-house. While you eat, you will be watched over by the matriarch of the family, who sits in the corner of the patio, fanning herself with a menu, alerting the wait staff when she sees that you need water, wine, or other service. An unforgettable small town experience.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Trattoria Della Stella, Verbania (Piemonte): Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, a few blocks away from Lago Maggiore's shoreline, you'll find the unassuming Trattoria della Stella. Lago Maggiore has plenty of places that cater to tourists, but this is just a small place frequented by locals on their lunch breaks. There are no menus; the waiter just tells you what's available that day. Three or four pasta options, three or four secondi (e.g. roast pork, stewed beef, etc.) Service here is friendly, if a bit harried, as there is just one cameriere to serve however many tables are seated each day. While we love artisanal food and enjoy upscale restaurants, we also really enjoy spending a long lunch sitting in a local place like this, enjoying the people watching and the atmosphere. No fuss, no waiters with crumbers, no extensive and intimidating wine list. Just good, hearty food, surrounded by businessmen on their lunch hour, people taking their grandkids out for a meal, and workers from nearby stores.  You won't believe the bill when you get it; let's just say it's incredibly affordable. 

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Trattoria Il Fantino, Modena (Emilia Romagna): We got a recommendation from local glass artist Susanna Martini to eat at Il Fantino. Though it is close to Modena's monumental Piazza Grande, this small restaurant is tucked away on a tiny side street, and therefore most tourists miss it. There are only a few dishes available each day; everything is fresh, handmade, and of a very high quality. The atmosphere is light and cheery, accessible and relaxed; the walls are covered with food-themed art, so you have plenty to take in while they make your dish from scratch.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Trattoria Il Fantino's tortellini stuffed with ricotta and parmigiano in a sage and butter sauce is light and delicate. While there, we had a dish of baby pork ribs cooked in lambrusco; they were so good, we nearly got in a fork fight at the table. The two or three dessert options are all made in house; be sure to save room as they are definitely not just an afterthought. Ours was sfogliatelle (crispy, sweet flaky pastry 'pages') stacked with fresh sweet whipped cream in between and topped with a liqueur-soaked cherry. This type of dessert can often be cloyingly sweet, but Fantino's is just perfect, surprisingly light and airy. The dining room is quite small, so be sure to make a reservation, as locals know to eat here so it's packed. 

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Locanda Delle Cicale, Canale Monterano (Lazio): West of the beautiful and famous Lake Bracciano lies a great deal of sparsely populated, rural landscape. Nestled in this farmland acreage is Locanda Cicale, a very quiet place (aside from the goats and chickens that live in the field behind), which has four modest rooms above a small but excellent restaurant. Arrive hungry, and save your appetite for the biggest antipasto plate you'll probably ever see—a typical Roman offering that includes, meats, cheeses, stuffed vegetables, and an assortment of savory pastries. These goodies sometimes come in two rounds, so pace yourself. They'll typically offer a lasagna with ingredients fresh from the farm, like radicchio or asparagus; again, their portions are such that one plate can easily serve two people. We seldom get as far as the meat course, but those plates are also expertly prepared and delicious. This is true farm-to-table cuisine, served simply but beautifully. Desserts here are fantastic; our favorite is the bavarese with berry compote. Best of all, when you are finished, you can just walk upstairs to your room and sleep it all off.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

La Buca Delle Fate, Pienza (Tuscany): La Buca Delle Fate is located right on the main street of Pienza. Its simple front door can be easily overlooked, and gives no hint of the beautiful interior—cavernous rooms that used to be the cellars of Palazzo Gonzaga, which date to 1460. The high, arched ceilings bounce sounds off the walls around you, so be careful what you say as someone across the room might be able to hear you! Locals crowd into this popular restaurant for its no-nonsense, traditional, affordable fare. This is the place to try a simple dish of pici (hand rolled, long thick noodles) with a sauce of wild boar (cinghiale), or tomato and garlic (all'aglione); or local sausages grilled over their wood fired oven. Pienza is famous for its pecorino (sheep's milk cheese); La Buca offers a very simple dish of wood oven-melted pecorino, a dish we can't resist ordering every time. The restaurant makes their own bread (always unsalted, as is the Tuscan custom); this delicious bread is the perfect vehicle to sop up sauces, baked pecorino, or their famous peperonata, which is always on the menu. Some desserts are made nearby, and some made in house—our favorite is the double-layer cream cake.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Ristorante Anna, Piancastagnaio (Tuscany): Ristorante Anna is a family-run restaurant that specializes in cuisine of the region. Outside the town wall, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it doesn't look like much, but it is one of the best restaurants we've ever been to in the entire country. As this is a forested, mountainous area, chestnuts and mushrooms are a huge part of the local culture and cuisine, and the folks at Ristorante Anna work wonders with both ingredients. They make a chestnut and porcini soup here that itself is worth the 9-hour flight overseas; many times we've driven here straight from the airport just to have this soup. We've only ever seen locals in here; it appears to be the place to go in Piancastagnaio, especially for Sunday lunch. Booking is an absolute must, especially on Sunday, when most of the tables are pushed together and entire soccer teams, band groups, or families rent nearly the whole restaurant. Sunday lunch is served family style: the dishes come out on huge platters and the soup comes out in a huge copper tureen; they serve you a portion and move on to the next person. In many places, this might mean the quality is lessened; but somehow these guys make the most delicate ravioli and serve it perfectly to over 100 people. Second helpings come free of charge, but be careful—there are multiple courses and they are all excellent. It's been quite an experience for us to be here on a few different Sundays when the restaurant was taken over by an entire group; the only ones not in the group were us and perhaps two other tables and it made us feel like locals to be a part of the whole scene.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Osteria Baralla, Lucca (Tuscany): Located just behind the circular piazza that is an ancient Roman Amphitheatre, this Osteria has been serving food since 1860. The very large dining room is actually a converted stable; unless it's summer, we don't think you would need to make a reservation. The Osteria prides itself on serving typical Lucchese cuisine, and everything on the menu is made from scratch. One Lucchese specialty offered is 'castagnaccio', a dense cake made of chestnut flour topped with pine nuts, and served with a scoop of ricotta. We saw a few tables of single elderly Lucchese gentlemen who had come in specifically to enjoy this delicacy; it was heavy, almost savory rather than sweet, with a very strong chestnut and rosemary flavor. For both food and atmosphere, this is the place to go in Lucca for typical cuisine.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Ristorante Da Mario, Buonconvento (Tuscany): This small family-run restaurant is located right on the main street. Its cozy, tiny little dining room is littered with pictures from Da Mario and Buonconvento's past, pictures of locals and regulars, and inexplicably, a plastic mannequin leg juts out of the corner by the front door. There are no menus; the staff just tells you what is available, and in general English is not spoken here. There is a sandwich board outside the restaurant with a list of what's available that day, so you can read up before you go in. This is a very casual, neighborhood restaurant, full of locals stopping in to grab a quick but delicious lunch, yet one of those quirky places where, you still need to stop in in the morning and make a reservation or risk being turned away for lack of space.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)

Unlabeled bottles of red house wine are on each table as you walk into Ristorante Da Mario; just pour yourself a glass when you sit down and you will only be charged for what you drink. Generally they offer a few types of pasta and you can choose a sauce; ask which pastas are handmade. We were lucky enough that day to get there just as they pulled an apricot tart out of the oven. What can be better than eating a sweet tart made by an Italian grandmother?

Like what you see here? Visit LittleRoadsEurope.com to craft your own off-the-beaten-track Italian vacation.

(Courtesy Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker)
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