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04 June 2015

Eat Like The Italians Do

Where’s the best place to try Italian food? Italy, of course. After many brilliant road trips around the country, I’ve decided it has some of the best food in the world. So here’s my guide to the best of the best: where to drive your hire car to find all the ingredients for a perfect Italian meal.

Banner Image Credit: iStock.com/Igor_Aleks

Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall

Starters – Colline Di Sorrento

I recommend starting with what is surely the best Italian food experience in the world. I discovered it when I drove my hire car high into olive-covered hills above Sorrento in southern Italy to find a farm shop recommended by local tourist officials.

The Esposito family’s orchards stand amid the rocky foothills of the Lattari Mountains. I climbed the path behind an old chapel to see slopes covered with lemon trees bulging with enormous fruit under fabric veils as protection from fierce summer sun.

Farm workers led me to an old concrete shed where they proudly showed me their old olive press surrounded by framed images of Catholic saints. A shy lady called Rosa demonstrated how she plaits strands of mozzarella in warm water to form a local cheese they call ‘treccia’.

Then I sat in the shade of a climbing passion fruit outside the family’s makeshift tasting room/café/shop sampling as many of their homemade specialities as I could. My favourite was the Esposito’s super creamy ricotta cheese, although the spicy salami made from their herd of pigs ran it close.

The family uses their lemons (along with sugar, water and neat alcohol) to make the local liqueur limoncello. I was driving, not drinking – so I bought a bottle to take home. You’ll find Italian farm shops like these all over the country. It’s a chance to find an authentic taste of Italy, typically rounded off with big hugs and kisses when it’s time to leave. http://www.lecollinedisorrento.com/

Lemons

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Pizza – Pizzeria Sorbillo, Naples

The best place to sample pizza in Italy is Naples. The wild, colourful and sometimes scary southern Italian city is the birthplace of pizza. The first time I visited I asked a local guide to take me to her favourite pizzeria. I was led through atmospheric back alleys, past ancient churches and across cobbled market squares to Pizzeria Sorbillo (http://www.sorbillo.it/en). Their pizzas have become so popular, the family have opened another restaurant a few doors away along the same road.

The restaurant was busy, but simply decorated. In the classic formal Italian way, I was introduced and shook hands with the Sorbillo family owners, who are renowned in Italy for their pizzas. Third generation chef Gino Sorbillo watched my reaction as my pizza arrived. Thankfully Gino’s pizza was superb: it was so big the dough flopped over the edge of the plate and the tomato and mozzarella topping soaked deliciously into the crust. http://www.sorbillo.it/en/

Pizza

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Pasta – La Carbonara, Rome

This is THE restaurant to visit in the Italian capital to try classic Italian ‘osteria’ family cooking. La Carbonara specialises in all the traditional Italian pasta classics, not just its namesake. But like many visitors to Rome, I was encouraged by a local to try a plate of spaghetti carbonara here.

You’ll find the humble entrance in a picturesque historic square. There’s a shaded area to eat outside on the pavement; inside, the walls are covered with graffiti scribbled by grateful customers over the last century. The food is all cooked and served by members of the Rossi family.

It’s a typically busy atmosphere, with no pretentions. The simple wooden tables have paper tablecloths and I sat under a ham, hanging from the roof beams. But my carbonara was epic: slightly firm ‘al dente’ pasta with a rich egg, cheese and fried pork sauce, topped with grated parmesan and ground pepper. http://www.lacarbonara.it/

Carbonara

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Fish course – Vittorio Ristorante, Sicily

Italian celebrity TV chef Giorgio Locatelli calls this remote restaurant on the west coast of Sicily his ‘favourite place’ so when I was working nearby with wine writer Olly Smith we were determined to drive down the narrow country lanes to find it.

Vittorio Ristorante stands among a cluster of whitewashed houses behind an unspoilt sandy beach. This is the village of Porto Palo di Menfi. Stepping into the sunny whitewashed restaurant I could tell it was going to be good: there’s no menu. You get what’s freshly caught.

The long grey-haired chef Vittoria appears at your table to explain the wave of dishes, which can feature everything from lobsters to sea urchins. And one of them, the marinated anchovies with sun-dried tomatoes, provided one of the most memorable tastes of my life. http://www.ristorantevittorio.it/

Seafood

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Dessert – Pasticceria Rizzardini, Venice

Italian towns and cities are bristling with stylish ice-cream bars. They’re often the coolest hangout spot and stay open into the early hours. But I prefer that other classic Italian dessert: tiramisu.

It’s not that old; this creamy coffee-flavoured trifle was only invented in the Veneto area in the sixties. The best place to try tiramisu is in Venice itself. Among the maze of alleys and courtyards try to find Pasticceria Rizzardini (http://www.timeout.com/venice/restaurants-cafes/venue/1%3A22725/rizzardini). This busy but ancient little corner shop is a bakery and coffee bar but I found that it also serves some of the tastiest tiramisu in town.

Tiramisu

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Coffee

The culture of coffee was invented by Italy. The first coffee houses were found in Venice 400 years ago and since then it has become a major part of Italian life. Italians are so fussy about their coffee they will often choose a restaurant on the basis of its coffee.

It’s a personal thing though and I’ve found it impossible to choose one place out of all the tens of thousands around Italy – one on every street corner. If you’re touring around in your hire car you’ll find that even the motorway service stations serve fabulous espresso coffees.

How much do the Italians like coffee? Well, I found recent statistics showing how many espressos the 60 million inhabitants of Italy drink. The country’s annual total is an extraordinary 14 billion cups.

espresso

Image Credit: iStock.com/TSchon

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