An empty restaurant in the United States, no matter how pressed its table cloths or ornate its dinnerware, gives rise to suspicion, assumed by passersby as low quality and undesirable. I must admit, I’ve abided by those presumptions while on strolls through the streets of my Chicago neighborhood, giving pause to the locales with hungry 20-somethings waiting on the sidewalk and barely noticing the quiet spots with only one or two tables seated by the miscellaneous “regulars.” By my obedience of this general rule is one of the first things I’m eager to leave behind while stuffing every possible fashion-forward piece of clothing or accessory I have into my Italy-bound suitcase. On my favorite boot-shaped peninsula, it’s a completely different story.
The Doors Flung Open
I’ll never forget the day that I noticed the existence of a trattoria catty-corner from my apartment in Rome one month after I moved in. The usual gates covering that piece of wall lining the street had been flung open, and a small welcoming sign spelled out Nuraghe Sardo, giving nod to the ancient structures that the island region of Sardinia is so famous for. I peered at the menu pasted outside, looking for the sure signs of what I considered non-authentic, low quality food in Rome in this hole-in-the wall place, but was surprised at what I saw: there was no pasta alfredo with chicken (check), lasagna with sausage chunks smothered in grated mozzarella and ricotta was no where to be found (double check), and the English translation left much to be desired (spaghetti with claims, anyone?).
I made the plunge, curious to try Sardinian food in my Roman metropolis, cracking the door to a quiet foyer. To my left, a display of fresh fish rested on a bed of ice next to a spread of prepared antipasti. We made our way to one of the many vacant tables and in a true leap of faith, asked the waiter to order for us. We were not disappointed. The wine landed quickly on our table, served in a hand-painted ceramic carafe, resting between the typical Italian white bread and the traditional crispy flatbread of the island, pan carasau. The stream of antipasti made their way on and off the table: typical vegetables, homemade salumi, and Sardinia’s many manifestations of pecorino cheeses, some sharp and biting while others’ morbid, pleasant texture complimented its fresh, vibrant taste. We worked our way through to the first course, mine a fettuccine al salmone, the house-made pasta tossed with a light tomato cream sauce speckled with bits of fresh salmon; my dining companion’s a dish of ravioli stuffed with fresh pecorino ricotta and spinach.
Then came the Porceddu sardo, parading out to the trumpets of joy our tastebuds were playing, presented as pieces of whole roasted pig whose tender meat lie under a bed of crispy skin and fat. This dish was eaten in silence out of utter respect for the perfection being offered to our (becoming way less) hungry stomachs. Pushing back our chairs and loosening our belts, we began speaking of giving up when dessert arrived: sweet almond pastries squatting on a plate next to a lump of fresh ricotta drizzled in honey, accompanied by the myrtle-berry liqueur Mirto, the island’s ubiquitous after-dinner drink. So what I was in Rome? That meal, a “perchance” stumbling upon, brought me straight to the mysterious and beautiful island of Sardinia that night. And to think I almost passed up this half-empty treasure of a dining experience.
A Lesson Learned
I’ve had the same type of experience several times throughout my Italian travels: a quiet cellar on a hill overlooking Bolzano served the first tasting of my beloved Lagrein, an eccentric aunt and uncle’s favorite lunch spot with no hint of a menu left warm memories of typical Veneto dishes cooked by a chatty chef, and an uncle’s choice to be one of two parties occupying tables at an underground salumeria on the face of Etna remains one of the most engrained memories of my eating adventures in Italy, complete with a ricotta volcano drizzled in reduction of wine made from the local grape, Nero d’Avola.
It takes only one experience of being the lone table eating the best meal you’ve ever had in your life in a narrow room of a restaurant tucked between a cartoleria and a Tabbachi convenience store on a random side street in Rome to convince you that what you thought you knew means nothing here. Some of Italy’s most sumptuous meals are cooked by that kooky couple in the empty, hole-in-the-wall trattoria that none of the neighboring restaurant-opposed Italians happen to be dining at that night.
Be warned that this doesn’t mean that you should stop in every single empty restaurant you see, but when traveling the Bel Paese, go all’italiano in choosing your dining locations: with your gut and not your mind. When that tiny trattoria that your guide suggested is empty upon your arrival, don’t turn your heal for the nearest terrazza packed with American tourists. Open the door and walk in; you might just be surprised at the turn out.
Not sure where you should start to look for these hidden gems? Try searching your location in our Tips for Travelers, a comprehensive online database of restaurants, shops, and other favorites recommended by Select Italy staff members.
Another one of our favorite hidden restaurant/cantina’s is the Kandlerhof in Bolzano; what is yours?