An Expert’s Opinionated Guide to Italy’s Best Restaurants
If there is one man who knows Italy’s countless restaurants, it’s Marco Bolasco, the 34-year-old wunderkind editor of the Gambero Rosso guides. Gambero Rosso started life some 20 years ago as a newspaper supplement; today it’s Italy’s most powerful gastronomic empire and includes cookbooks, a magazine and a professional cooking school. Besides appearing on Gambero’s TV channel, scouring the country for promising young chefs and overseeing the authoritative Guida dei Ristoranti d’ Italia, which awards Tre Forchette (three forks) to Italy’s top places, Bolasco is expanding the guides themselves. The most recent title, Low Cost, proves that one can eat well for just a few euros. Recently, I caught up with Bolasco at Città del Gusto, Gambero’s futuristic Rome headquarters, where the country’s leading tastemaker revealed his favorite restaurants and shared his thoughts on the state of Italian dining.
How has Italy’s dining scene evolved from the “one big trattoria” cliché?
The trattoria image pretty much held true until the ‘70s. Then Gualtiero Marchesi from Lombardy changed the game. He imported French nouvelle cuisine principles into Italy in the early ‘80s, and he’s still going strong today at his eponymous place in Lombardy. Not only did he make traditional flavors lighter, fresher and more elegant, but he influenced some of today’s most creative young chefs: Carlo Cracco from Milan’s Cracco, Enrico Crippa from Piazza Duomo in Alba, Paolo Lopriore from Il Canto in Siena. They all have that superstylish Marchesi touch.
What other factors helped create the modern Italian dining scene?
The explosion of boutique ingredients and awareness of regional foods was a huge development. In the past, a southerner had no clue about balsamic vinegar from Modena, and a northerner would never have heard about burrata cheese from Apulia. The economic boom of the ‘80s helped the culinary scene, too.
What are Italy’s emerging regions?
Campania, particularly the Amalfi Coast, is numero uno for exciting openings. In the Gambero Rosso guide, the Campania pages have almost doubled recently. There’s money from the tourist economy, amazing ingredients—seafood, those vibrant vegetables—and a competitive spirit among chefs. If one chef opens a place, his neighbor must open a flashier one. Relais Blu in Massa Lubrense and Taverna 18 in Vico Equense are just two of Campania’s terrific new restaurants.
Sicily is another emerging powerhouse, with its own identity and rich mix of traditions. “New regionalism” reigns among young chefs like Ciccio Sultano at Il Duomo in Ragusa, who’s reintroducing forgotten flavors and ingredients. In Sicily, the wine culture exploded, and new cuisine followed.
In Piedmont, majestic traditional places like Guido in Pollenzo aren’t far from innovative spots like Piazza Duomo in Alba, whose chef, Enrico Crippa, used to cook in Japan and now uses those influences in his cooking. In the guide, we call out a tiny local town on our maps if it has a great restaurant, but in Piedmont, the concentration of fantastic restaurants in any one place is so dense, we can’t even figure out how to represent it graphically.
What city has the best restaurants?
Sorry, Italy’s cities are not the best places for great dining. Turin is the exception: After a period of culinary darkness, its restaurant scene has become much more interesting. At AB+ the young chef, Alessandro Boglione, worked with [Spain’s] Ferran Adrià, and now he’s serving modern Mediterranean food at great prices.
What cities would you avoid at all costs?
Venice! The more stunning a place is, the worse you’ll eat there.
There must be a couple of places you like there.
OK, Al Covo and Met are very good.
Why are most of Italy’s best restaurants in the country?
Great Italian cooking is anti-urban. Cities are for business lunches; for transporting meals, go to the country, which still has a connection to ingredients and traditions. Of course, economics play a part—who can afford crazy city rents? That said, there are now more great urban restaurants, like Milan’s Cracco.
What trends are you seeing in Italy’s dining scene?
Wine bars serving boutique salumi continue to multiply. And—finally!—pasta is in vogue again among serious chefs who once considered it beneath them. Paccheri, a southern Italian pasta like a big, unridged rigatoni, is particularly trendy.
You’re being sarcastic about the pasta. Is there any trend you actually find promising?
Yes, regional cuisine creatively done: lighter, more articulate.
Who are some up-and-coming chefs?
Giuseppe Cuttaia at La Madia in Agrigento, Sicily, cooks in a simple place out in the sticks. He’s a wonderfully tranquil character who brings a beautiful classicism to baroque Sicilian flavors, as in his merluzzo, or cod, smoked over pine and perfumed with orange. The 30-year-old Adriano Baldassarre, from Il Tordo Matto in Rome, is terrific, too. His food is inspired by vernacular Roman traditions—offal, lots of lamb and goat—and is full of strong flavors and character.
What are your thoughts on the Slow Food movement?
I am for good food; not slow, not fast. Not long ago, Italian chefs were embarrassed by their own cuisine—remember those pseudo-cosmopolitan ‘80s dishes like penne alla vodka? Slow Food created a new pride in traditional regional products, and so there were the cured-meat and cheese booms, and by extension, the enoteca craze. Artisanal salumi and cheeses are great, but is that really cooking? I’m not sure we’ve really found a replacement for the kitchen skills of our nonnas and mammas—especially when all the young chefs want to do cucina creativa and be on TV.
What frustrates you most about Italy’s restaurants?
Abuse of fancy ingredients. For me, a great potato is worth more than a truffle. One of the most memorable meals I had recently consisted of pasta di pomodoro, potatoes, zucchini and herring. It was at a place called Le Colline Ciociare, not far from Rome. The chef, Salvatore Tassa, is totally crazy, but he’s the maestro of simple flavors.
Where would you go on an eating trip around Italy?
Alto Adige, near the Austrian border. I’d hop between valleys— Val Badia, Val Pusteria, Valle Aurina—and stop at outstanding restaurants like St. Hubertus in San Cassiano.
How does Italy’s food scene compare to those in Spain and France?
At the moment, we are definitely more dynamic than France, though we still can learn from them. We have a real fraternity with Spain. There are a few similarities: the regionalism, the Mediterranean flavors. Yet the Spanish are more open to innovations, less parochial than we are. Traditional Italian cucina is so full of rules—adding an extra clove of garlic can be a drama—so we can’t move ahead as easily as they do. But there’s a beautiful exchange of ideas.
What do you see as the future of Italian food?
I don’t see foreign cuisines really taking off. Here, fusion generally means marrying regional flavors, say Sicilian and Piedmontese. To Italians that’s adventurous enough. The foundations for nuova cucina Italiana have been laid; ahead of us I’m seeing a period of refinement and reflection, not a radical break with the past. The future looks great.
Though food and travel writer Anya von Bremzen’s latest book is The New Spanish Table, she also has a soft spot for Italy.