Pasta with cream sauce, pizza with hollandaise sauce or tiramisù with cream. Nothing can spoil your mood more than when you end up at a "fake Italian". When instead of a feast for the palate à la Bella Italia, you're served something mixed together. How you can tell „good Italian" - even outside of Italy....
In Italy, eating is known to be culture and a way of life: it's not primarily about getting full, it's about enjoyment, about bella vita. In Italy, food is never just a means to an end. So you are all the more disappointed when you don't get anything typically Italian in a supposedly typical Italian restaurant.
Some fake Italian restaurants can be recognised as a "rip-off" even before you enter. Typical signs: an aggressively charming recruiter fights for virtually every passer-by in front of the restaurant, the menu is translated into 25 languages, Wiener Schnitzel and Bratwurst Pommes are also on the menu - but there is not a single local at the tables.
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Checklist for your restaurant test
- Start with a simple plate
- Prösterchen with house wine
- The vinegar with the mozzarella
- A touch of antipasti
- Sea with cheese
1. start with something simple
The great art is in the simple: Before you order the grilled fish and prawn platter for two, start small. First order a plate of pasta with tomato sauce, a round of "spaghetti al pomodoro". Is the sauce cooked with love and time, with tomatoes that taste of Italian sunshine - or is it all rather a watered-down affair with chemical flavour enhancers, perhaps even made worse with cream?
Alternatively, you can of course try a classic like "spaghetti carbonara" (traditionally made with egg only, not cream) or "spaghetti aglio e olio" (garlic, oil, parsley and chilli peppers if you like). The cuisine that doesn't have these basic dishes doesn't need to be tested further.
2. toast with house wine
Every "good Italian" has an inexpensive and good house wine on the menu, in red and white. It is usually good and affordable. When eating, Italians drink wine not because of the wine itself, but as a drink to accompany the meal. However, the wine should not drown out the fine taste of the dishes and should by no means take over the main role. If there is no house wine, the restaurant is probably not a "good Italian".
3. the vinegar with the mozzarella
Italian mozzarella tastes best pure - the full load of melt-in-the-mouth, creamy milk flavours. Delicious! Mozzarella is often served plain at the "good Italian", but often also as "Insalata Caprese". with tomatoes and basil. Normally, it's just olive oil and salt. If your mozzarella is drowning in balsamic, it's time to try a new "Italian"....
4. a touch of antipasti
Points 1 to 3 are ticked off? Perfect! Then let's get down to the finer points. Let's order a round of antipasti before the main course this time. Italian starters include air-dried cold cuts of ham or salami, Italian cheese specialities, but also pickled vegetables. And it is usually with vegetables that the "good Italian" differs from a standard restaurant.
The vegetables are usually marinated in plenty of olive oil, sometimes with a touch of vinegar. Emphasis on the touch. If antipasti actually taste sour, then either they are old and should no longer be eaten or someone has no idea about antipasti.
5. sea with cheese
As soon as something comes from the sea, the cheese is put away at the "good Italian". Neither spaghetti alle vongole, grilled scampi or cooked fish are served with Parmesan cheese. "Non si fa", you don't do that in Italy! Fish and cheese are taboo. If it is served together anyway, it is not "good Italian".
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written by Pietro Perroni, first published 18 November 2022
Cover image - collage: Big Pixel via canva.com; Bruno Coelho via canva.com