I finally got it. It’s brain pattern disruption. Everywhere. Afternoon closing of stores. Crossing the street. Driving. When and what to eat. The sound of a different language. Finding a “petrol” station. Returning a rental car. Light switches that go on/off in the “wrong” way. No wonder I’ve been so weirded out.
Most of the Italians we have met have been charming, friendly and helpful, much more than we would have expected, Fellow FoodBeest. So not wanting to paint with too wide a brush, it is clear from our experience that the ancient Romans who designed things like aqueducts and in-house plumbing, as well as luminaries like Leonardo Da Vinci weren’t thinking quite like modern Italian designers.
I mean square toilet seats? Looks cool, but don’t Italians have round butts like the rest of us?
“You think we should test the toilet design, Giuseppe?”
“No, Luigi, it’s fine. It looks great. Let’s go get a café.”
“Should we mark the roads so they know where to turn, Angelo?”
“Ah, Giovanni, they’ll know what to do. Let’s go get a cafe.”
Modern Italians are very good at designing/engineering all kinds of things. Mostly those things that they are interested in: Shoes. Bicycles. Couture clothing. Kitchens. Food. They are not so good at designing roads, maps, street signs, or bathrooms. And not so good at giving directions or estimating time.
late edit: now that we are in the north, it is apparent that there are regionalisms, somewhat similar to that in the States. We’ve already come across some extraordinary and notable engineering feats, roads and architecture. So in the words of Roseanne Rosanna Danna: “Never Mind.”
Italy has a much better shot at good food than we do in the U.S. GMOs are forbidden. Tomatoes taste like tomatoes. We’ve seen lemons masquerading as melons (all the better for lemoncello). We had a lovely mozzarella and salumi sandwich at a little stand.
But it’s possible. It happens. We know. Because we are here for so long, we have been trying to find mostly locally frequented small, mom-and-pop restaurants, rather than the grande expensive establishments in featured in all the best guidebooks.
After much research before the trip at some of our favorite food and travel sites (Chowhound, Slow Food, Trip Advisor), and among friends, we have, in fact, had some very mediocre food. With Italian food being recognized and, indeed, vaunted for the elegant simplicity of its ingredients, it is not necessarily the norm. Chefs do get casual. We have seen microwaves in kitchens (Gordon Ramsey would be horrified!).
While a bite of perfect, freshly made ricotta or bufalo mozzarella can make my day and certainly my meal, a slice of half-cooked aubergine isn’t all that unusual on an antipasti plate (and trust me, you don’t want your eggplant crunchy).
Even places highly recommended by sources I trust have been disappointing. At a restaurant on the beach on the Amalfi Coast – glowingly recommended – I was actually served a limp zucchini blossom filled with ricotta cheese and sausage that tasted so off I couldn’t eat it.
Rules for Finding Restaurants
1. It must be clean
2. It must have lots of customers
3. It is better to find some place that isn’t in the main piazza, but at least a bit off the beaten path.
4. Strangers can give you very good advice. Sometimes they are other Americans; sometimes they are locals. Besides, it can be the beginning of a wonderful relationship (or even just a great conversation and sense of the culture).
5. If someone is standing outside of the restaurant soliciting passers-by, walk on by.
6. Don’t count on hotels recommending the best places. They have their own agendas and even kickbacks.
Naples is famous for its pizza. Classical Neapolitan pizza is cooked in a very hot wood-burning oven and has a thin, chewy crust and very simple toppings, such as just a margherita or pomadoro sauce. The afficanados warn against bufalo mozzarella (mozzarella made from the milk of buffalo) because it doesn’t melt properly. Cow’s milk or some combination is preferred.
So, for our first dinner in Naples, we headed for one of the most highly regarded pizza places in town, Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo. It is a two-story restaurant in the old city in a university area and is packed with tourists and students. They create and sell 400 pizzas a day here!
Then we ordered pizzas. Not the simple classical ones. Mine was topped with mushrooms and speck (an very lean Italian cured ham, much like proscuitto) and Mr. FB ordered one with artichokes and cherry tomatoes on a margherita sauce. We started sipping our beers, when 10 minutes later (ten!) the water returned with two pizzas, each at least the size of a steering wheel, the food overhanging the plates.
The balance and taste of crust and topping are superb, and the crust was perfectly caramelized, both chewy and crunchy, but the standard pizza in Naples is more like a New York-style pizza (soft and pliable in the center) so you can fold it to eat it while you walk down the street. Not, as they say, my particular cuppa tea.
Jon Stewart’s public preferences aside, I prefer my pizza crust crunchy all the way through. I like what is called a cracker crust for thin pizza. I guess that’s a Chicago-style thin crust (as opposed to our unique and world renowned deep dish).
Using our debit card at the bancomats here in Italy has been an ongoing challenge. Getting on the right street or the right train or to the airport on time has been a challenge bordering on a freaking miracle. Even getting baggage properly checked in at the airport is ridiculously hard. Just getting in and out of one of the hotel bathrooms has been interesting (the sink was WAY too big for the room and protruded into the doorway, making it necessary to squeeze awkwardly just to get through the door).
Never have we been clearer than we are at this moment that our performance is totally a function of workability and that workability only happens when something is whole, complete and perfect: when it has total integrity. In case you didn’t know, Fellow FoodBeest, it’s true: without integrity, nothing works.