A few weeks ago at daybreak when the brain is at its most agile, I realized that the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list or W50B (see “The Society of the Illusionists”), had a polar-opposite: the Slow Food’s guidebook “Osterie d’Italia”.The difference obviously has nothing to do with practicality, as the former directs you to 100 restaurants around the world, and the latter nearly 1600 in just one country. Rather it is a qualitative difference. The W50B and the “Osterie d’Italia are emblematic of two kinds of restaurant-going gastronomy. The former is the celebrity-chef-is-everything restaurant, the latter the culinary-landscape or geography-driven one that gives a sense of place and tradition. The W50B is pay-for-play, self-serving, and disinterested in the restaurant patron. The “Osterie d’Italia” is a labor of love, a collaborative effort of hundreds of gastronomes, and the love of culinary patrimony and bestowing enlightenment on its readers. It is not a matter of choosing or preferring the W50B list over “Osterie d’Italia” in mapping out an Italian culinary journey, as there are only four restaurants in Italy among the W50B. Yet you would not want to rely exclusively on “Osterie d’Italia” since it is concerned with restaurants (almost 1600 of them) in the lower echelons of price and typify the traditional cuisine of the region prepared by chefs (many of whom are women) unknown beyond their districts. Still, I find this guide indispensable each time I travel in Italy because it will lead me to restaurants that are emblematic of where I am, or want to go, in a country that has such a varied and ever-changing culinary landscape.
I use “Osterie d’Italia” with other resources such as a small number of people whose taste I trust; restaurant websites; and books such as Gambero Rosso’s “Ristoranti d’Italia”, the “Guida Veronelli” and the “Guida Michelin” that cover restaurants in all but the least-expensive categories. Furthermore, because these guide books include the restaurants that are on the W50B list it makes that list useless except for those playing the game of visiting as many of the 50 restaurants as possible.
Late last fall during ten days in Venice and the Veneto province, I experienced the gastronomic extremes that the W50B and “Osterie d’Italia” represent. After we left Venice where we had three meals at the quintessential Venetian restaurant Fiaschetteria Toscana, (the sort of restaurant suitable for “Osterie d’Italia”, but too pricey to be included) we spent six nights in the spa town of Abano Terme, eight miles south-west of Padova. The surrounding area has several restaurants that are in the “‘Osterie d’Italia” guide, three of which we have visited in our two visits to the spa. This last visit we had two dinners at La Tavolozza, an eight-minute drive away, and a lunch at Antica Trattoria al Bosco in Saonara, 25 minute drive.As is often the result in “‘Osterie d’Italia” restaurants, we regaled ourselves in dishes of the local cuisine, choosing them from menus of plentitude (http://www.anticatrattoriaalbosco.com/menu.html) (http://www.latavolozzatrattoria.com/dishes).Their ambiance was rustic and in good, understated taste, and as our women servers were the wives of the owner-chefs, they had aa proprietary interest in making our visit as pleasurable as possible.
A scant 15 minutes from where we were staying is Ristorante Le Calandre, number 29 on the W50B list. Ten years or so had passed from our impressive first visit when we ordered à la carte in a small, well-lit room where the chef Maximiliano Alajmo answered our questions and took our order. His saffron risotto with licorice was a dish I have never forgotten. Hoping to recapture the memory, we returned, this time to sit in a large, rather dark dining room. We tried to make the best of it by choosing dishes among three tasting menus, something you could do as long as you did not ask for any full-size portions. We once more had the saffron licorice risotto, but in its small amount we could not immerse ourselves in it or really enjoy it. Our meal was desultory, as was the atmosphere, and as if to punctuate the mercenary quality of the restaurant that we didn’t feel the first time, the chef’s brother came to our table and talked of nothing other than his traveling around Italy and France building up the family empire, which now consists of ten establishments. He also put before us, in the hope that I would buy it, this heavy coffee-table vanity publication about his brother, a true exercise in trivial, glorified egomania. Our waiter also overcharged us 130 euros, which I had to straighten out with e-mails. We did not ask to be reimbursed, but rather told the woman on our case to give it to the most humble, under-paid person in the restaurant.
The “Osterie d’Italia” guide does not resort to a hierarchy of symbols or numbers. It does singles out with a snail symbol a small number (275 or so) of the close to 1600 restaurants it covers because their food, ambiance or welcome strongly conforms to the norms of the Slow Food organization. However, every restaurant in the guide offers the products and preparations of its region, and all are affordable, with an average cost of 35 euros excluding wine. When a restaurant emphasizes local cheese and wines, the guide recognizes it with a cheese and/or wine symbol. Most significant, however, is that the description of each restaurant is fulsome. It tells you, along with the practical information, who the owners are, the type of ambiance and décor, and an overview of the cuisine. It then lists many dishes and the price of each, printing in red those that are highly typical of the area or those that the restaurant excels in.
You can read about the scope and concerns of Slow Food (which includes in Piemonte its University of Gastronomic Sciences (www.unisg.it) in their publications (some of which are out of print, but available on-line about itineraries through gastronomically-rich areas, and dedicated books about Italian produce such as salumi, cheese, wine, truffles, and on its informative website products and preparations around the world on the verge of extinction (the Slow Food Presidia). Although some of these books and “Osterie d’Italia” guide are in Italian, their essence is easy to grasp and understand if you don’t read Italian. The guidebook covers its 12 regions of Italy in encyclopedic fashion with its nearly 350 contributors. If there is another restaurant guide that tells you where and how to immerse yourself so profoundly and systematically in the regional cuisines of any other country, let me know.