As you can see from this blog, I consider myself an expert eater. I love and appreciate good food. For me, it is clearly one of the draws of being anywhere in Italy. When Americans tell me they have had bad food in Italy, it makes me very sad. Such a waste to not eat well in this country, where good food is more of a religious experience than what you will find at the Duomo.
At a lovely restaurant, the Convent, in Specchia, we spent a bit of time with the owner Pietro. He was charming and informative. He runs the restaruant with his wife, Maria, who is the fabulous chef. He is frustrated that his English is not good enough to talk to English and American visitors. He wants to improve this situation so he spending 2 hours everyday taking English lessons. Good for him!
He wanted to communicate to foreigners how to really enjoy the food in Italy. These are his opinions with my comments added in.
1. Whereas in the US eating "local" has become a politically correct term, in Italy it is a way of life. What this means is that you can not get spaghetti carbonara any where in Puglia. This is not where that dish originates. If you ask for something that they don't make, they don't really know how to handle it, and they are embarrassed. Of course they would know how to make spaghetti carbonara but it is now what they do. In the US it seems normal to take the best dish of each region and present the best of the best at a restaurant. Not here. If you are going to Florence, Milan, Rome you can get any food from any region. If however, you get off the beaten path, know that the menu in each region is very specific to that region. When ordering food in a restaurant in a small Italian town, do what the locals do...ignore the menu and ask the waiter what they advise.
Before you can get their advise, you must chose how many courses you want to eat, antipasti, primi (this is soups and pastas) secondi (fish and or meat). Sometimes you want all three, but often you do not. Once you make this choice, the waiter can then help you eat the freshest and most delicious things the kitchen has to offer.
2. Got out of your comfort zone with the food. They do have hamburgers here as well as McDonald's but what is the point of coming all of this way and ordering American food? I understand that food is comfort and sometimes we would like a taste of home...but try to push yourself, order the seafood salad, try the squid, and I think you will be surprised at how delicious these dishes are.
3. Restaurants in Italy are very different operationally than in the US. The cook is usually a family member and the staff are also family. Restaurants here, except in the large cities, are not really a business the way we think of them. They are run by people who have a passion for food and want to share that with others. In the US the cooks, are not the chefs. Here there are no cooks, only chefs. This means that the owners take the food and your response personally. If you are happy with the food tell them. They really don't expect tips, in money, only in words.
4. Restaurant service..the big complaint about Italian restaurants is that the service is slow. That is a fact. The kitchen is actually in there cooking the food, not reheating it so the service is slow because the cooking is slow. When you eat here, try to just kick back and enjoy the leisure meal. If you want something fast, go to a "tavola calda" which is basically good food cafeteria style. It is where many of the workers eat. The environment isn't all that great, but the food is well priced and good. If you go to a restaurant, expect it to take a while.