You’ve finally made it to Italy! You can go ahead and tell all your friends that you’re only here for the culture and art history, but we both know your secret: you’re here for the Italian food.
The challenge is that major cities such as Florence and Rome are buzzing with tourists, and many restaurants in these these historic cities make their money by disguising low-quality food as “authentic” Italian food. Here are some tips finding true Italian cuisine of your dreams.
1. Does the restaurant have pictures of the food?
Wow, the pictures of the food in the windows of that restaurant really look great, right?
Nope, these almost guarantee that the food you’re about to eat is not authentic. If you see pictures of the food anywhere—in the window, on the menu—just walk away. This is very much meant to draw in starving tourists who don’t know where to go.
2. Are your favorite Italian foods from home on the menu?
So, this one may be surprising to people who have never visited Italy before: fettucine alfredo is not Italian. If you see it on a menu, it means this restaurant put it there specifically to cater to tourists and, chances are, it’s not a very authentic place.
That being said, if you look around and see every diner’s dish completely covered in cheese and copious amounts of garlic bread, run. See anything remotely resembling chicken parmesan? Run again. These are all strictly American-Italian foods, and your vacation in the rolling hills of Tuscany or on a beach in the Mediterranean will be so much more delicious if you skip these tourist traps.
3. Learn what the local dish is before you go out.
Italians are proud of the cuisine from their respective regions. If you even attempt to suggest that pasta alla carbonara isn’t Roman or that tortellini isn’t from Bologna, you’ll get anger flying from any true Osteria or Trattoria. So, all you need to do to understand if a restaurant has authentic Italian food is to check their menu for cuisine from the region you’re visiting.
For example, an Italian restaurant in Florence not serving Florentine steak, or bistecca alla fiorentina, may not be authentic.
4. How does the gelato look?
I can’t even begin to explain the difference in the two types of gelato offered in Florence. One is made every single day with fresh local milk and flavors, whereas the other is typically a powder mixed with sugars, artificial flavors and colors, and low-quality milk.
The easiest way to tell if the gelato is authentic is by its container. Is the gelato stacked high and topped with piles of fruit? Fake. If the top layer of the gelato is just slightly higher than or equal to its container, it’s real!
The differences in taste are easy to spot too. Real Italian gelato is much creamier than American ice cream, almost as if it has started melting.
5. What’s in season?
Italian rarely eat food imported to their country, preferring to eat locally farmed fruits, vegetables, and meats as often as possible. Because of their (amazing) obsession with farm-to-table foods, you can usually skip any restaurant offering flavors that are out of season.
Also, Italians are required by law to write on the menu if any of the foods used are frozen, so make sure to check very well for small asterisk or a written explanation on the bottom of the menu detailing which foods are frozen. If you see this, go find a new restaurant. Very rarely will an authentic restaurant include frozen ingredients.
Checking for foods that are in-season is especially important with determining if gelato is authentic, too. Is there a watermelon flavor in the winter? There shouldn’t be. Also, pay attention to the color of the fruit gelatos, even if they aren’t your flavor of choice. If the lemon is a bright yellow rather than a translucent off-white, and the blueberry is a vivid blue instead of a darker purple, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the gelato on offer is a powder full of food-dye mixed with milk and ice.
6. Price and location can’t tell you much.
There are some people who say that you absolutely cannot find authentic cuisine in front
of the Duomo in Florence or the Colosseum in Rome. While it’s true that there are certainly more restaurants catered towards tourists here, there are still legitimate and delicious foods with a view.
While many osterias off the beaten path are €6-10 for a plate of pasta, go ahead and pay a little more to indulge in the scenic view without losing the authentic tastes you’re craving—as long as you follow these tips.
Angela Karl is a professional freelance writer currently living in Florence, Italy, with over six years of experience in the editorial world. When she's not writing articles, she can be found perfecting her programming language skills and seeing as much of the world as possible. For more information, check out her website, Instagram, and Twitter.