Finding good food in Italy can be a real trick, especially for foreigners. In Rome for example, it is a fact that in the historic centre most restaurants, trattorie and osterie that look very nice are also the best known touristic traps. Trust me on this one. Most of these places will have their menu (with English translation) posted outside so that tourists can check dishes and prices before sitting down. You can easily recognize them because of their crowded location, see Piazza Navona for example. And for my experience, the best places to eat are those with no signs at all, like Il Timoniere and Il Porchettaro.
First, the differences
A trattoria is an eating establishment which is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria. Trattorie may have minimum printed menus, the service is casual, wine is sold in a carafe rather than in bottles (house wine, normally the best choice), prices are low and the emphasis is on a steady clientele rather than on haute cuisine.
An osteria was, originally, a place meant for serving wine and simple food. In time, the emphasis has shifted to local specialities such as pastas and grilled meats. It is common that in osterie one finds big shared tables and menus tend to be very short or simply non-existent.
Look for small places and local clientele
I have always found the best typical food is found in those trattorie and osterie where the absence of tourist masses allow a much better and dedicated service. In few words, I choose my place based on its clientele. Trattoria is more like a “familiar” kind of restaurants (most of them are run by a family). Smaller and less formal, and generally located in an alley or side street. Usually a member of the family –the mother or father – will be managing the kitchen, while another member will be dealing the cash and serving at tables. These places are certainly more relaxed and allow you to enjoy a homier food. Il Timoniere is the best example I have for trattoria.
Good food? Follow the Carabinieri
Carabinieri cover a wide range of responsibilities, among which is a noticeable interaction with people in general. The Italian carabiniere is a public figure that unlike anywhere else spends a great deal of time socializing. This makes them experts in great places to eat because:
- a) they don’t have much time so finding a lunch spot must a straightforward task;
- b) they are the Italian stereotype: they like good food.
I have personally tested this theory and it has been a great success every time I have followed a carabiniere into a trattoria or osteria. Trust me, they know good food and they know how to spot it.
My husband believes that fishermen do not eat often. In fact, he thinks they eat not knowing when the next meal will be. It makes total sense; their job keeps them away at sea for extended periods of time and when they do come back to land all they want is a big plate of food and off the go again!
So, this is the second tip: if you are on a coast line looking for a truly unique local experience, look around for fishermen and see where they sit down for a meal.