The perils (and joys) of spontaneous dining overseas

Times Staff Writer

My family was stunned.

When we travel, I almost invariably make dinner reservations months in advance for virtually every night of the trip. I make them even before we have airplane, hotel or rental car reservations. But here we were in Florence, Italy, shortly after 6 p.m., and we had no idea where we'd be eating dinner that night.

Several friends speak enthusiastically — rhapsodically — of the joys of spontaneity. I am not indifferent to those joys, but to me, eating is one of the great pleasures in life. Like Napoleon's army, I travel on my stomach — and I see no reason to risk being stranded at day's end without at least the strong possibility of an excellent dinner.

Friends less compulsive — and less passionate about food — than I make fun of my obsessive behavior. But I point out that I'm always willing to change plans, cancel reservations or go to some casual place that takes no reservations, and on any given trip, we usually do all of those. But I want to know in advance that if I choose to eat very well on a given night, I can do so, without worrying that the restaurant I most want to go to is closed or fully booked.

In truth, I do feel somewhat less compulsive on this score in Italy than I do in, say, France — or in New York, Napa Valley or Las Vegas — because I think it's harder to get a truly bad meal in Italy than it is almost anyplace else. It may also be harder to get a truly great meal in Italy than it is — or used to be — in France, so I don't feel the same compulsion in Italy that I used to feel in France to eat in specific restaurants — to drive an hour or two each way to eat in one "Great Restaurant" or risk feeling I'd committed a gastronomic felony.

(In recent years, it seems to me that food in France has either declined in quality, even as it's risen in price, or it just hasn't kept pace with the greatly improved food in this country. In either case, restaurant dining just isn't as enjoyable as it once was in the land of Descartes, Deneuve and De Gaulle.)

Just as I consult the "Guide Michelin" and Patricia Wells' books — "The Food Lover's Guide to France" and "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris" — to plan my eating in France, so do I rely on Faith Willinger's "Eating in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic Pleasures of Northern Italy" and Fred Plotkin's "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler" when I'm in that country. I also scour back issues of Gambero Rosso, an excellent Italian food and wine magazine, as well as Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Condé Nast Traveler.

Despite having done all that — and having consulted various travel-savvy friends, restaurant critics and Italian restaurateurs here and in New York before this trip to Italy — I made dinner reservations well in advance for "only" eight of the 13 nights. Still, to have no reservation at 6:10 p.m. in the height of the tourist season left my family wondering whether I'd secretly had a personality transplant.

No, what I had was a list of options for every open night.

At 6:15 p.m., I called the first option on my Florence list — a simple seafood restaurant called Ricchi that Willinger had recommended.

"Vorrei prenotare un tavolo per stasera per tre persone, per favore," I said — "I'd like to reserve a table for this evening for three people, please" — using one of three Italian sentences I'd managed to memorize (the two others having to do with taxis and toilets). Bingo. They had a table. And a great table it was — outside, on the patio, where we could take in the summer night and the flamenco dancers performing on a makeshift stage adjacent to us in Piazza Santo Spirito.

The food was superb. Beautiful zucchini blossoms stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese. Carpaccio of branzino (European sea bass) that was practically translucent and tasted as if it had been pulled from the Mediterranean 10 minutes before we'd arrived. Gnocchi, cooked to chewy perfection and nestled in a pool of squid ink. Maltagliati pasta with tomatoes and langoustines. Best of all was a dish called sushi di Chianti — raw, marinated beef on skewers. (Beef is a staple of Chianti.)

We had an even more pleasurable and equally spontaneous experience later that week, in Chianti itself, when the woman from whom we had rented a house suggested we would enjoy her favorite restaurant more than any of those on the long list of possibilities I had carefully assembled with the help of friends, experts, guidebooks and newspaper and magazine articles.

She was right.

The restaurant was Al Gallopapa, and it was in a cavern beneath the streets of Castellina in Chianti, about 20 minutes from our temporary home and about an hour south of Florence. Prosciutto hung from the ceiling. Wine bottles lined the walls. Long salami lay on a cutting board just inside the front door. Nine of the 10 tables were full.

We sat down at the 10th table and ordered.

I began with an assortment of local salumi, or cold cuts, and my wife, Lucy, ordered something that was translated on the menu as "porked rabbit" — cold rabbit surrounded by local Colannata lard. We all tasted it, and we all loved it. Then, Lucy and our son Lucas had risotto with Parmigiano-Reggiano and mushrooms before sharing a huge, juicy veal chop with onions and capers. I had spaghetti with guanciale (cured pork cheek), ricotta cheese and balsamic vinegar, then a locally grown pigeon served with grilled potatoes, chicken livers and a red wine sauce.

We so thoroughly enjoyed the dinner — and Tiziano, the cheerful, helpful proprietor — that we returned two nights later. Our second dinner — highlighted by an ethereal lasagna that consisted of two wafer-thin sheets of pasta sandwiched around finferli mushrooms, small pieces of rabbit and shavings of summer truffles — was even better.

So, given our happy adventures in Florence and Tuscany, will I play things more by ear on our next vacation and yield nightly to the forces of spontaneity? Probably not. After all, I can still remember a trip to Italy in 1985 when we met friends for dinner in Venice and they teased me about my obsessive-compulsive dinner planning. Chastened, I vowed to make no reservations for an upcoming visit to Milan. But when we got to Milan and I called the first six restaurants on my list, all were booked for every night we were there. We wound up eating elsewhere, in restaurants that were certainly acceptable but not much more than that.

Even worse — and much more recently — I had the only two truly bad meals I've ever had in Italy, both in Florence, both at lunch spots suggested on the spur of the moment by someone we'd arranged to meet there.

As I've discovered over the years, dining in a foreign country with friends or relatives can be a tricky matter. On the one hand, I'm reluctant to risk wasting my time, money and limited dining opportunities by going to a restaurant that I've never heard of, in a city I've visited before and researched thoroughly, that's been chosen by someone who doesn't necessarily share my taste or my priorities-cum-passion for food. On the other hand, I don't want to be controlling and dictatorial and insist that we all go only where I choose. This is especially true when the other members of our party are on a more limited budget than I.

So, trying to be a good guy and shed my growing reputation as a restaurant Nazi — "Ve vill go only vere I vant to go" — I went along with our companion's choices on two consecutive days.

Big mistake. Two big mistakes.

So, a little more spontaneity next time? Yes. But not a lot. Especially not if this guy shows up and says, "I know a great little place…."


David Shaw ( is a columnist with The Times' Food section.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World