During our recent trip to Italy, PJ and I ate really well. With only one or two exceptions, all of our lunches and dinners were delicious, but five of our dinners stand out as our favorites. Although I have friends who have encouraged me to take pictures at restaurants and then use them on my blog, I didn’t end up taking many pictures of our food. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have a lot of pictures to back up all of the praise I’m going to give these restaurants.  So, I’ve “borrowed” a couple of pics from the restaurants’ websites.  In those cases, you can click on the picture to go to the restaurant’s site.

We were surprised by the lack of diversity in the cuisine at the restaurants we saw. Almost everything is Italian. After 10 days or so, we started getting a little tired of pasta and pizza, but as I said we ate really well so we can’t really complain all that much. Generally, we each had a primi piatti, or first course, of pasta and a secondi piatti of fish or meat. We also usually had gelato for dessert as we walked around after dinner.

Before briefly discussing my favorite eateries in Rome, Florence, and Venice, I should explain how we chose where to eat each evening. The first night we were in Rome, we just walked around for a while and then picked a place that looked ok. It turned out to be our worst meal in Italy! A second strategy was to go to a main plaza or square and eat at one of the outdoor restaurants that mostly served tourists. This strategy worked pretty well for us when we were in Spain a few years ago, but most of our meals in these restaurants in Italy were only adequate to ok.

Mostly, we looked up restaurants in Rick Steve’s guidebooks. Usually we chose a restaurant that he recommends, but instead of making a reservation ahead of time we showed up just after they opened for the evening.  This meant eating a little early by Italian standards — usually around 7:30 or 8 pm — but it worked fine for us. We always got a good table, and we often had the satisfaction of seeing later arrivals turned away or told to come back later. With only one exception, this was a winning strategy. All five of our favorite restaurants from this trip were the results of this method.

My favorite restaurant from this trip was Ristorante il Gabriello, a great little restaurant in near the Spanish Steps in Rome. It’s down in a basement, but is quite charming. Here’s a picture of the restaurant from their website:

This was actually the first restaurant we chose based on Rick Steve’s recommendation and the one that convinced us to continue employing this strategy. It was also the place that convinced us to just order the house wine at each place we ate: it’s cheap and delicious.

I had shrimp with pasta as my primi and veal with mushrooms for my secondi. PJ had a pasta carbonara for his first course and lamb for his secondi. We shared a panna cotta for dessert.  Although I’m mostly a vegetarian, I quickly gave that up while we were in Italy. The restaurants don’t really cater to vegetarians all that well, and to be honest the meat dishes just looked too wonderful to pass up!  This restaurant’s atmosphere and service were also great. All in all, it was my favorite dining experience in Italy.

My second favorite dinner was also in Rome and happened to take place on my birthday. For our last night in Rome, we ate at Trattoria da Lucia, a little out-of-the-way place in Trastevere. We ate outside in a row of tables, but the restaurant is in a little alley, so you get the pleasantness of being outside without all the noise and traffic of being in a main square or thoroughfare. This picture on the right is someone else’s picture. I found it on tripadvisor.com. Click on the picture to go to tripadvisor.com’s reviews of Trattoria da Lucia.

I started with a penne arrabbiata, a spicy tomato sauce that was wonderful, and then had a veal stew with peas, also delicious. PJ had spaghetti alla Gricia (wonderful!) for his primi and rabbit in wine sauce for his secondi. I think he had a little difficulty eating the rabbit — it’s not a dish we’re used to eating and it therefore posed a mechanical problem of how to get the meat off the bone without picking it up and gnawing on it. I loved the food, the staff, and the atmosphere at this restaurant too. The only drawback is that we got to it before it opened, so we walked around the neighborhood for at least a half hour before going back to eat. I was already exhausted and my feet hurt from all of the walking we had already done, so I now fondly refer to this pre-dinner walk as the Dinner Deathmarch. I have to say, however, that the meal was definitely worth it!  We followed dinner with a wonderful pistacchio gelato.

Number three on my list is in Venice: Osteria da Alberto, which specialized in seafood. Rick Steve notes this restaurant’s “woody and … characteristic interior,” which I also really liked. For the first time in our 14-and-a-half years together, PJ and I had the exact same meal in a restaurant from start to finish. We started with a risotto with shrimp for two and then each had a grilled sea bass. Neither had any real experience eating a complete fish with bones, head, and tail intact, so it definitely posed a challenge. Both the primi and the secondi were delicious, however, so the challenge of getting every piece of meat off of that fish was one I was definitely going to meet. It started off a little messy, but by the end I had learned to get the meat off without dislodging the bones. For once, I took a picture to capture my achievement:

This is easily one of the best fish I have ever eaten.

The fourth restaurant on my list is Trattoria da Bepi, the place where we ate on our final night in Italy. This Venetian restaurant is also known for its seafood. I ordered the potato ravioli stuffed with spinach for my primi (excellent) and then had cod with mushrooms for my second course. PJ ordered the spaghetti with oil, garlic, and spicy red chili, which was “unbelievably awesome,” to quote PJ. It was a very simple dish but it packed a big wallop! It was the hottest, spiciest food we’d had in a long time. It was awesome (I tried a bite). He had cuttlefish Venetian style for his second course, which means his plate was a large pile of inky stuff. It didn’t look all that appetizing, and it wasn’t PJ’s favorite dish, but the spicy spaghetti more than made up for it!

And finally, the last restaurant on my favorites list is Trattoria Nella in Florence. Rick Steve billed this restaurant, which is near the Palazzo Vecchio,  as “good, typical Tuscan cuisine at affordable prices” and it was. It had a nice atmosphere and the food was excellent. Here’s a pic from the restaurant’s webpage:

This was one of the places that people kept coming in and being turned away because they didn’t have reservations and all the tables were taken, but most of them were told when to come back, usually in an hour or so. I was surprised to see that several groups actually did come back while we were still there. I think it spoke well of the restaurant’s service and food. I had tortolini and then the sausage and beans, which were wonderful, especially when sprayed with a little juice from the lime slice on my plate, and PJ ordered ravioli with a cream and walnut sauce and then roast beef and spinach.

These weren’t the only great meals we had in Italy; they are just the ones I liked the most. I just wish I had taken more pictures!