A low-budget trip to Italy can still fill you with the Italian favorite pastime, eating. Unfortunately, a five-course meal for two in the average Italian ristorante can cost between $50 and $75.
A wonderful, inexpensive alternative to anyone traveling to Italy, regardless of budget, is the trattoria , a family-run establishment offering less elegant but delicious, home-cooked meals.
On our second night in Italy, my travel companion, Kevin, and I discovered that we could have a huge, multicourse dinner with plenty of wine in a trattoria for less than $25 for two. From then on, we hunted for trattorie in every Italian city we visited.
We stumbled upon Trattoria Za-Za's one afternoon while meandering through the Mercato Centrale, a collection of outdoor souvenir stands in the northern section of Florence.
When I saw the word trattoria, I reacted like Pavlov's dog. Within seconds I was reading Za-Za's menu posted outside. I eagerly compared prices and specialties as Kevin approached: 3,500 lira ($2.50) for pasta, 2,500 lira ($2) for salad, 4,000 ($3) for chicken.
Kevin peered inside to evaluate further: "Hey, it's pretty crowded. I think we found a good one." Listening to the language of the customers, we're convinced that for a trattoria to have exceptional food, the patrons have to be Italian. If we follow this rule, we're sure the locals will lead us to all the best places.
Less dated than other trattorie we'd discovered, Za-Za's has a distinct Bohemian flavor. Rows of Chianti bottles and huge bunches of garlic cloves decorate the elaborate deli counter. The dining room contains long wooden picnic tables, and on the darkly paneled walls are photographs of celebrity diners. Of course, neither of us recognized the faces. I told Kevin deductively, "They're Italian movie stars."
X Marks Za-Za's Spot
Upon further investigation, Kevin noticed a picture above our table of the Los Angeles rock group X. He's intrigued that the music group not only chose to eat at Za-Za's but that they're recognized as celebrities.
A young waiter approached our table, singing along with Madonna's "Like a Virgin" as it softly played in the background. He slapped a torn piece of brown paper on our table and, directly on that, a chunk of thick crusty bread.
We interrupted his singing and tried asking about the picture of X. Either he couldn't understand our pidgin Italian or had no idea who X was.
We devoured our first course of spaghetti with pesto, a tangy sauce made with fresh basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese ($2.50).
Za-Za's has no private tables, so customers eat elbow to elbow with strangers. It took only moments to strike up a conversation with our nearest dinner companion. He watched us gobble up our next course--I had grilled chicken breast with lemon ($3) and Kevin had breaded veal cutlet ($4). We also had tossed green salad and sauteed eggplant ($2 each).
Our new friend was an actor from London. He told us he was performing on stage in Florence for the first time. Although I was interested in his story, I was more interested in the pasta dish he was eating, spaghetti with a hazelnut sauce.
The play is Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." My mouth was watering: "But what about the pasta?"
Answering, he slowly wiped his plate with a piece of bread and said, "It was absolutely delicious."
Za-Za's is in the Piazza Mercato Centrale. Telephone 215411.
Game of Finding Food
Trattoria -hunting quickly turned into a game. With the success of Za-Za's under our belt, we were eager to discover more out-of-the-way treasures. A day of sightseeing didn't go by when we didn't wander down quiet side streets searching for the perfect ma-and-pa restaurant.
We had indeed become pros in finding a bright awning or neon sign with the flowing word trattoria , but arriving in Venice, our talent for discovering low-cost dining was put to a real test.
The exceptional beauty of Venice equals its exceptionally high price tag. Food costs in Venice are the highest of any city in Italy. A modest lunch can cost more than $50 in Harry's Bar.
Deciding not to take a defeatist attitude, we hit the intricate back streets and canals with great gusto and a detailed map. On our first afternoon we became lost in a residential neighborhood directly north of San Marco Square. The alleys were alive with housewives crowding tiny meat markets, elbowing their way toward the front counters.
Others were attracted by vendors shouting attention to their fruit stands, but we ignored their invitations and stopped in every pastry shop to sample the homemade apple torte, cream-filled pastries, butter cookies or crumb cakes.
In the evening, we finally found Trattoria al Mondo, a few streets west of the Church of Giovanni and Paolo. Al Mondo is a small storefront with a simple, hand-printed menu outside. Inside are three dining rooms, but only 10 tables. Colorful prints decorate its white stucco walls, and the kitchen is in full view so everyone can watch the young chef/owner.
Freshly Cooked Pasta
Our waiter placed the first carafe of wine on our table and politely told us that our pasta would take at least 15 minutes. He was apologizing, but I was delighted at the thought of freshly cooked, homemade pasta.
We passed the time sipping our wine. To save money, we always ordered house wine ( vino della casa ) rather than the more expensive bottled Italian wines. The quality always satisfied us, as well as the price--never more than 2,000 lira ($1.50) for a liter.
Kevin's penne (a long tubular noodle) pasta with a slightly sweet meat sauce ($3) was my favorite, but he liked my fettuccine with Gorgonzola cheese best ($3.50).
With our second carafe of wine, the next course came--Piazzola ($6), a recommendation from our waiter. Veal, chicken, beef or pork--they're fillets covered with a hot, spicy marinara sauce.
When we finally emerged three hours later, the once high-spirited neighborhood was deserted. Raindrops began to fall lightly as we huddled together, happy with another exceptional feast. Trattoria Al Mondo is at Castello 6505.
For those less willing to hunt for a trattoria, there's a simpler way to find one: Ask a resident.
While in Rome, the owner of the Colosseum Residence pensione , where we stayed, was more than eager to recommend Pasqualino's, his favorite. "It's cheap and very good. Be sure to tell the waiter, Antonio, you are my friends, and he will treat you special," he said.
It couldn't have been more convenient; Pasqualino's was just across the street, Via SS Quatro. It was the nicest pensione we stayed in in Italy. We took a room without bath for $35 double; a room with bath was about $45 double.
In a residential, working-class neighborhood just a few blocks from the Colosseum, Pasqualino's is clearly a local favorite. The tables were quickly filling up as we arrived shortly before 8. We sat outside, where extra tables are set on the sidewalk and nearly into the street. A full moon, silhouetting the Colosseum, provided the perfect romantic backdrop.
Antonio was the first to greet us. His jet-black hair was slicked back, and a linen napkin was draped over his arm. His English was as poor as our Italian, but we managed to understand each other with a minimal amount of gesturing and a few words from our pocket Italian dictionary (a must for translating menus).
After finishing one small antipasto tray of prosciutto ham, cheese, olives and artichoke hearts ($3), we followed Antonio's advice and had fettuccine allo stennarello --Pasqualino's specialty of flat pasta noodles sauteed with wild mushrooms ($2.50).
"What's next, Antonio?" I asked.
"Ah," he said, smiling, "you must try the tripe."
Chicken and Trout
Tripe? We quickly looked up the word, and just as quickly declined the offer. The thought of cow's stomach, no matter how popular among Italians, didn't appeal to us.
Instead, I tried another Pasqualino specialty, pollo alla diavola, baked chicken with a delicate hint of ginger ($4). Kevin ordered the broiled trout ($4), which Antonio skillfully deboned at our table, using two spoons.
The food, the prices, the service and the atmosphere are so appealing at Pasqualino's that we ate there three nights in a row. Pasqualino's is at Via SS Quatro 66.
The cost of dining in a trattoria may be low, but the calorie count is high. How did Kevin and I do Italy without gaining a pound? Simple. We burned off the food by walking half the country to find those great trattorie . And that was half the fun.