Italy restaurants: My 5 favorites after eight years living in this gastronomic paradise
La Lampara on island of Procida leads the way of a very exclusive list
I’ve written — or, I’m told, I’ve crowed — a lot recently about how thankful I am living in Italy these days. However, it’s not just that Italy is flattening the coronavirus curve and my life here in Rome is returning to normal. The reasons for Italy’s appeal have filled volumes for centuries. The people. The wine. The art. The countryside. The islands. I could go on. In fact, in this blog I have.
But one thing stands out. It comes to mind every time my stomach gets a little pang, like a tap on the shoulder reminding me that paradise is just around the corner.
Italy is the best food country in the world.
It doesn’t have the ethnic food of the U.S. or the cache of France. But for consistency in quality, of pure, unadulterated, gastronomic dining pleasure bordering on sensual, nothing beats Italy. I’ve lived in Rome for 6 ½ years and nearly eight over two stints. I can’t remember a bad meal I’ve had in this country. In France I’ve had steaks that could choke a Bengal tiger. The United States is really hit and miss. But in Italy it’s wonderful peace of mind knowing you’re walking into a new restaurant and it’ll be at least good and probably great. The number of business cards I’ve collected from restaurants I’ve been to and ones I want to try could line the inside of the Colosseum.
This made me think. What are my five favorite restaurants in Italy? I’ve done my five favorites in Rome. But Italy covers an area from near the North African coast to the Alps. I’ve eaten in 17 of its 20 regions. Narrowing it to my top five is like picking the world’s five prettiest beaches.
But the effort sure brings back tasty memories.
I know I told Americans to stay away while your virus curve resembles the Manhattan skyline. But this nightmare will begin to end, hopefully, Nov. 3. Some day you can visit my adopted country. Until then, save this blog for future references. My five favorite restaurants below aren’t going anywhere.
Neither am I.
La Lampara, Campania
Via Marina di Corricella 88, Procieda (Campania), noon-3 p.m., 7-10:30 p.m., 39-081-896-0609, www.hotelcorricella.it/it.html, email@example.com.
Connected to the three-star Hotel Corricella on the island of Procida, the restaurant sits on a limestone cliff connecting the island’s main piazza above with one of Italy’s prettiest harbors below. La Lampara is so romantic you’ll forget what you’re eating. But try peeling your eyes off the soft light bouncing off the boats in a harbor lined with pastel-colored buildings. Procida is where they filmed “Il Postino,” which earned a 1995 Oscar nomination for Best Film. The studio chose Procida because it resembles Italy from the 1950s when the film’s story takes place. Procida hasn’t changed much since. It’s still Old Italy.
The food, primarily fish caught from boats you see bobbing in the harbor, matches the view. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli), ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese, remains the best ravioli of my life. I had a heaping side bowl of clams and dessert of tiramisu sprinkled with lemon. Washed down with a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara alone has lured Marina and me back for a visit later this month.
The island is also my favorite in Italy. Located in the Bay of Naples, Procida gets overshadowed by nearby Ischia to the west and Capri to the south. But it’s only a 75-minute train ride from Rome to Naples then a 45-minute ferry ride. Leave Rome by 8 a.m. and you’ll be by your hotel pool or a beach by noon.
Renato e Luisa, Lazio
Via dei Barbieri 25, Rome (Lazio), 8-11:30 p.m., closed Monday, 39-06-686-9660, www.renatoeluisa.it, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is only slightly biased. Renato e Luisa has been our favorite restaurant in Rome since locals recommended it to us as “a place Romans go.” Marina is a third-generation Rome and it’s her favorite place in the city. It’s a small, simple, family run restaurant on a dark side street off Largo del Torre Argentina where Julius Caesar was murdered. It’s now where cats from the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary lounge on 2,000-year-old marble ruins.
Rome restaurants have a bad rap of having repetitious menus. Renato e Luisa does have the same Roman classics others do: pasta amatriciana, cacio e pepe, spaghetti carbonara. But, like most restaurants in Rome, they add their own twists. I especially love the fettuccine pachino e ricotta di bufala (flat pasta noodles with bufala ricotta cheese and cherry tomatoes) and the tagliata di manzo all’aceto balsamico (lean beef with balsamic vinegar). Its signature dish is its cacio e pepe e fiori di zucca (pasta with pepper and pecorino cheese with courgette flowers).
But an absolute must is this appetizer: goat cheese with nuts and honey. Save room for my favorite tiramisu in the city and my preferred dessert choice, fondente al cioccolato con crema al mascarpone e composta di arance amare (dark chocolate with mild Italian cream cheese and orange sauce.) Renato e Luisa has no outside seating and it’s brightly lit inside. You’ll feel like you’re in the dining room of an Italian grandmother. (It currently remains closed but reopens Sept. 1.)
Osteria il Borgo dei Fumari, Abruzzo
Via XXXV April, Prata d’Ansidonia (Abruzzo), 12:45-3 p.m., 7:45-10:30 p.m., 12:45-3 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday, 39-08-62-931-456, www.osteriailborgodeifumari, email@example.com.
It’s located in the Apennine Mountains that cut down Italy’s spine through Abruzzo, the lightly traveled region east of Lazio. Abruzzo is isolated and Prata d’Ansidonia is isolated in Abruzzo. About 20 miles southeast of the regional capital of L’Aquila, the village of Prata d’Ansidonia dates back to the 4th century B.C. and still only has about 500 people.
At 2,775 feet, Borgo dei Fumari is appropriately named. Fumari comes from fumare, (to smoke in Italian) and every room in the 600-year-old stone building has a fireplace. I’ve eaten there twice in the last year. The first time we had a private room with a stone floor, gold tablecloths, two wine cabinets and a door going out to a patio with a beautiful view of the Abruzzese countryside.
Our second trip last month we sat in a cozy, cave-like room where wait staff scurried across the narrow road from the kitchen. Fumari is one of the best places in Abruzzo to try regional cuisine which, due to the harsher winters, is heavy: beef, lamb, mutton, macaroni pasta. It sprinkles everything with local flavors such as saffron, rosemary, chili peppers and truffles. Lots of truffles.
Its signature dish is the grande antipasto, a massive selection of appetizers such as scamorza, a Southern Italian curd cheese with jam and almonds, grilled mushrooms and zucchini, quiche with chili peppers and truffles, bruschetta (toasted fresh bread) with truffles and lard, potato squares, polpette checchi (chickpea meatballs), cheese in marmalade sauce, sliced salami, mozzarella with truffles, tropea chipotle (caramelized red onions) and pizza fritta (fried ring of pizza dough).
Order a bottle of Abruzzo’s signature Montepulciano red from the local vineyard Emidio Pepe, and you’ll feel like you’re in the most untouched paradise in Italy.
Built just before Abruzzo’s 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people, the building suffered little damage but the entrance was blocked. Fumari closed for three years and scaffolding still holds up some nearby structures. You’ll need a car to reach it.
Da Sandra, Tuscany
Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 20, Magliano in Toscana (Tuscany), 12:30-2 p.m., 7:30-9:45 p.m., closed Monday, 39=05-6459-2196.
The charming walled village of Magliano in Toscana, 80 miles south of Florence, has all of 3,500 people. It’s a nice getaway from the crowds of Florence and the setting in Tuscan countryside is idyllic.
This is the one place in Italy where you eat until you can’t walk. I went here shortly after moving to Rome in 2014 and I still remember the massive lunch. For 25 euros (about $28), I had a six-course meal for the ages: an appetizer of pappa al pomodoro, a thick, Tuscan bread soup made with basil, olive oil, garlic and tomatoes; tortelli, a local form of ravioli filled with potato and black truffles; gnocchi (potato dumplings) with porcini mushrooms and pumpkin sauce; pappardelle, a flat, thick pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce; fat chunks of cinghiale in gravy made from local Morellino di Scansano red wine; and pork fillet stuffed inside a puffed pastry crust..
I remember I didn’t eat again until the following breakfast. I also remember I must return soon.
Del Corso, Le Marche
Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 277, Ascoli Piceno (Le March3), 39-07-36-256-760, 12-2:30 p.m., 7:30-10:30 p.m., noon-2:30 Sunday, closed Monday.
Despite being 20 miles inland, it’s one of the best seafood restaurants in Italy. It’s famous for its continuous mixed seafood antipasti and fish soup. All the dishes, including a healthy list of whole fish, come straight from the nearby Adriatic that day. Try the local Pecorino white wine.
How authentic is it? They not only don’t have English menus, they don’t have menus. The owner came out and told us what he was serving that night. He was scowling and gruff but his food made up for it.
The restaurant is small, rustic and tucked away on Corso Giuseppe Mazzini which cuts through Ascoli Piceno’s quaint old town. The city (pop. 50,000) is one of Italy’s best off-the-beaten-path destinations and famous for its Misto Fritto festival, a week-long affair every April featuring Italy’s best fried foods. But Del Corso is healthy.
At Del Corso, as well as all the others, you’re guaranteed to learn one Italian word: Buonissimo!