Eating out in Italy (Terms & Conditions Apply)

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When choosing a place to eat in Italy, as a tourist it can be quite confusing or even daunting. Not only do you have choose what ristorante to eat in, but you have the confusion of other eateries which to the tourist may look like your usual restaurant; trattoria, pizzeria, osteria, rosticceria a tavola calda, bar…the list goes on. I’m going to talk about the main places you need to know about, especially when holidaying in Italy.

 

The Italian ristorante is, more often than not, a more pretentious, grandiose way of eating to perhaps even the most affluent Italian, yet it may not be the most genuine.

In the tourist traps of cities and towns in Italy so-called Italian ristoranti will line the streets among the other eateries, their staff harassing passers-by under pressure to come try the “best pasta or pizza in town”. Most of these places rely of course on tourist business only and the pasta or pizza is maybe just slightly better than that from the nearest Autogrill. ‘Real’ Italian ristoranti would never dream of having, nor would they need, their staff outside coaxing in potential customers. Most would have a monumental facade and their waiters would be gliding around tables in bow-tie black and white suits with a crisp white linen napkin folded over their arm, ready to pounce on any wine bottle before it is lifted from a bucket, or any fork before it falls to the ground. Here they watch their customers like hawks. I am talking now, about the higher end of the scale of ristoranti. There are also, naturally enough as we are in Italy and we like things complicated, different levels of ristoranti. These higher class restaurants I speak about are usually situated in a more affluent, touristic or trendy area of the city or town, and usually also come with the highest prices. 

Recently the more high-end restaurants often adopt the name osteria instead, as they may do a tasting menu or menu degustazione. One such restaurant is the high class Al Pont de Ferr in Milan. Here you will eat very well of course, but not traditional. That being said there are some high-end restaurants where you will taste the most delicious of delicacies. It is a matter of opinion on whether or not mamma cooks best. 

 

The trattoria or osteria is probably the most common of eateries in Italy. This is usually a family run place serving local and family specialities. The trattoria will more than often also have a pizza menu, especially in cities, to service the tourist trade who expect pizza to be on the menu almost everywhere. Osterie tend to be even more traditional and family run and probably more casual. Locals will eat here and you will likely be served by the papà or his son Francesco rather than someone who is employed there and unrelated. The mamma will be cooking everything you eat so you can expect real home cooking here. Perhaps not in Trattorie in the larger cities but certainly even in the smaller touristic towns. As mentioned above, some of the fine dining restaurants have adopted the osteria name, perhaps more of a fashion statement more than anything, they are certainly not full of rustic charm.

 

Pizzeria. Need I say more? Perhaps one of my favourite places to eat in Italy, not just for the pizza! Pizzerie usually only open in the evening, I have never even seen one in Milan open in the day. Pizza in Italy is a casual, social and delicious way to dine. Pizza, I would say, is almost always eaten with friends. The social “let’s go for a pizza” is almost like the Irish catching up over a drink. One of my favourite places to have pizza, which was most definitely not the best pizza I have ever had, was a place down the road from where I lived in Verona. It was run by an old man and woman and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. It was frequented by local Veronesi, friends and families got together there to chat, argue, watch football.  Some came alone to read the paper and chat to the old man making pizza in his little stone oven at the front, while his wife wandered through the tables taking orders between sitting down to watch her game show playing loudly on the television. It was the atmosphere I came for.

 

In Italy, generally, you do not tip. Sure enough in large cities like Milan foreigners and tourists do, but Italians will never tip. When reading the menu, look out for servizio incluso (service included), or copertopane e coperto (cover charge), which means even if you want to you won’t need to leave a tip. Terms and conditions apply.

 

I once heard the saying più si spende, peggio si mangia, the more you pay the worse you eat. Not 100% true obviously since you will get fine dining if you pay for fine dining, but the point of the phrase in my opinion is more towards the authenticity of the food. When one searches for a restaurant while in Italy surely we want to eat real Italian food – When in Rome, right?

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Zucchine Ripiene

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One of my favourite restaurants in Milan, ironically, was a Roman restaurant called Rugantino, and my favourite dish on their menu was their zucchine ripiene which they called ‘Zucchine della Nonna’. Zucchine ripiene are stuffed courgettes (or zucchini), usually with meat. It is a main dish in Italy, although it would probably be seen as a starter in Ireland – you could half this recipe for a starter version. In Italy, a minced pork meat and sausage mix is usually used, but I use beef here since in Ireland it is difficult to find Italian sausage meat, and I am not big on pork mince alone! So this is a bit of an Irish take on zucchine ripiene. Although it is quite a hearty, seemly winter dish, zucchine ripiene are eaten in the summer season.
That’s not to say they cannot be and are enjoyed all year round!

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 Courgettes (8 halves)
Olive oil for brushing
Tinned tomatoes (half can) / passata
200g Minced beef
1/2 Onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed/minced
Fresh basil, finely chopped
1 cup of red wine
Fresh breadcrumbs

Method

Wash the courgettes and place on a chopping board. Cut off the top, and the tail if you wish but I usually leave it on. Slice each one diagonally down the middle and carve out the middle part of the courgette so as you are left with a little boat-like shape to fill. Keep the middle carved out part as you will add this later to your filling. Brush the entire courgette pieces with olive oil.
Finely chop what is leftover from the carved out part and set aside for your filling.

Usually I use a meat ragu (used in lasagne or bolognese) to fill the courgettes, but you can also stuff them with raw meat patties and then cook, obviously this would mean longer in the oven. Personally I prefer mine with a rich tasting ragu as they are often served in a rich tomato sauce anyway.

To make the meat filling you will need a deep pot. Heat the pot and put in your minced beef without adding oil allowing it to cook in its own juices. By heating the pot first you will ensure that you lock in that flavour of the meat and don’t cook off the fat. When the meat is half cooked add your chopped onions and garlic and stir, then add your courgette pieces and stir until the meat is fully cooked.
Add in your chopped tomatoes or passata and stir. You only want to add enough to make a thick pasted sauce for the mince, not something that is a runny as a bolognese sauce. Add in the cup of wine and let the alcohol burn off.
Add the freshly chopped basil and some freshly cracked pepper and some grated Parmesan cheese and stir. Leave this to sit for around an hour or better overnight to get a rich tasting ragu.
Add in the breadcrumbs, enough to make the mixture a little pasty and mix well.

Fill the courgettes generously with the filling. Push down to make a neat smooth filling. Grate some Parmesan cheese on top.
Bake the zucchine ripiene in baking tray in a pre-heated oven on 180 degrees until the cheese is melted and the breadcrumbs are golden, the courgettes should have softened now also. This usually takes around 15-20 mins.
If you are serving this as a main, serve with a dollop of creamy mashed potato.

Buon Appetito!