How to find and fall in love with real, local food as you travel

Food love from Gusta Pizza in Florence. Photo credit: Justine Ma

Food love from Gusta Pizza in Florence. Photo credit: Justine Ma

It occurred to me the other day in a conversation with a couple of friends that it is often the case that tourists do not actually have a clue about how to find decent local cuisine when visiting a foreign place. I figured some things were just obvious. But my friends courteously informed me that it is often, in fact, not the case that tourists know or even think about finding authentic food in their travels. Dumbfounded, I exclaimed: “Seriously, how could you really be enjoying your travel experience without really experiencing the FOOD?!” I can’t imagine food and travel not being coupled. Food savours some of the best memories.

Said friends and I looked around at the hustle and bustle of Florence’s centre on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, a marathon having just occurred that morning. Eyes widening, we noted, “it’s that time of year again,” when the tourists roll in by the thousands. It was the first day of the year that I had seen it that busy. Now a local to the city I once was a tourist in, a slightly snobbish side revealed itself for a fleeting moment when I considered: “how am I going to get through all this madness on my bicycle? I ring and ring that trusty little bell and these annoying tourists are just floating in their own world without a clue!” But then my empathetic side cued in, and I was humbled at the thought that while I am now a local, I haven’t been for long, and often times still feel like a lost tourist myself. While on my own travel adventures outside of home in Florence, I am often put right back in my place as a tourist again too. Food and drink are such a vital part to a place, to defining and learning a culture. So let’s talk about what I at least think are important tips about eating, drinking, and being more locally-merry, wherever in the world you find yourself ready to eat.

Photo credit: WineTown Firenze

Photo credit: WineTown Firenze

Look around, and listen. If it sounds like where you wine and dine at home, as in, they’re speaking the same lingo as you are, then it’s a pretty sure sign it’s not a local hot spot in the foreign-language (or even accent!) country you’re in. If the vast majority of patrons around you have cameras on tables, backpacks or shopping bags hung on chairs, or are sporting a NBA jersey (let’s keep in classy folks), again, it’s highly unlikely this is a local eatery.

Read up. Reading blogs written by locals is my personal favourite method for uncovering the best places! That’s a big part of why I got in the gig of blogging, which I boycotted before. Piles of people have graciously guided me in the right direction to many restaurants and other wonders of the city in which I am now settling in to as a local. See what the seasoned veterans suggest. Cities will often have English-speaking newspapers that will advertise good places to check out too. Florence, for example, has The Florentine newspaper.

Use modernity to your advantage. Internet is a wondrous invention, increasingly becoming more useful and accessible. Hit up websites like Trip Advisor and Yelp, where you can even type in whatever neighbourhood you’re in and get listings of great, personally-reviewed places to satisfy your tastebuds in town. Use caution when reading those reviews, though. Look for the reviews by residents, or at least ones who are well-travelled and skilled in food sampling! The young lady who is on her first overseas trip and is like, totally, so NOT ok with the gross whatever-they-were in her food is probably not a review to take to heart or stomach. The fellow who comes from the “I need it now” cultural background may not be impressed by the slow-food experience here in Italy, but that’s all part of the process and incredible results in food here, so digest that with what you eat!

Use old-school word of mouth. Ask around. Ask your concierge at your hotel, owner of the b&b or other accommodation you’re staying at and they are surely bound to be bursting with great suggestions. But ask them to tell you where THEY like to eat, not necessarily where the tourists like to go. Or, whenever you eat or shop somewhere, ask the employees to point you to the next best place. For example, while having aperitivo at one place, don’t be timid about asking the bartenders there where a good dinner spot is hiding, or ask other customers where the next watering hole might be, where to find a delicious dessert, whatever it is you’re craving! You’d be surprised at how many people are happy to share about places they regularly enjoy, or where they may even know friends who run a place and would be glad to welcome you as new guests! And if they just stare at you like you’re foreigners, well, remember you are and move along! No harm done in asking, and the simple attempt might make a good memory for you 🙂

Venture in the side streets. In the majority of places I’ve been, it’s usually (but not always) the case that the “touristy” (aka, not authentic) places are in the main streets and squares. Break off the tourist chains of people and release your inner explorer into quieter areas where you can pretty much guarantee you will stumble across some of the city’s best kept culinary secrets.

Holes in the wall are often your next happy place. One thing I’ve definitely learned living in Italy is don’t judge a restaurant by it’s doorstep. Places like these on the outside… Buca dell Orafo

….have food like this inside….

Photo credit: Adam Smok

Photo credit: Adam Smok

This particular place in the photos is called “Buca dell’Orafo,” buca meaning “hole,” but it’s anything but that! Here you can find legit Tuscan comfort food that will leave you longing for more casa dolce casa in Florence.

Seeing isn’t always believing. In line with the “don’t judge by the cover” theme, in this case, you probably can: those places that post the poor-quality photos on the menu or front window are usually attempts to lure tourists in. I find that the more inconspicuous places, the ones that don’t need to flaunt it, are usually the most intriguing and ultimately satisfying.

In regards to a very important part of Italian food culture, this concept fully applies to gelato. This past weekend in the midst of discussing this whole “authentic food as part of a cultural experience thing with my friends,” we were standing in line at a great gelateria in the heart of Florence. I heard a couple behind us remark, “let’s not wait in this line, we can’t even see the gelato, so we don’t even know if it’s good or not.” Off went a loud “WRONG-O” buzzer in my brain. I almost chased after them. Here’s your first clue, there’s a line. Typically a good sign it’s good eats. Secondly, and *star*, underline, and bold print this important Italy fact: gelato that you CAN’T see is the BEST quality. Those fluffed-up, neon-bright coloured mountains are just pompus puffs of airy, artificially flavoured garbage. Read up about how to find great gelato here.

Simple is not always a synonym for plain. This applies to a number of cultures, but Italian is definitely one that boasts simple, but fresh and flavourful ingredients. While we may come from cultures that pack plates full of ingredients and that often use sauces and dressings to drown food in for flavour, that’s what Italians often detest. They pride themselves (rightly so) on being minimalists with quantity, but quality is key. So if you see something that might look boring to you, try it still – could be a party in your mouth. Another big tip for when in Italy: it’s a must that you eat at a Trattoria or Osteria for a traditional, home-style Italian meal.

Be brave and taste test. Don’t go looking for what you think is authentic food. If you believe chicken penne and ham and pineapple pizza is Italian food, you are sadly mistaken and will be lost long in your search for it. Drop the hunt for your preconceived notions and just have a go at the server’s suggestions, even if you haven’t tried anything like it before. That’s the fun of it! You’ll likely be very pleasantly surprised, and never want to go back to those old, false concepts you had of a certain culture’s food. …… Garlic bread, anyone? I didn’t think so.

Don’t leave eating to the last minute, as much as humanly possible. Yes, we all get caught up in the excitement of sight-seeing that we don’t realize how hungry we are until our bellies start grumbling while standing in the middle of that pin-drop-silent museum room, or until our heads are spinning at the top of the panoramic point, but we quickly gather that it’s hunger rather than heights or Stendhal Syndrome (a psychosomatic term defined here in Florence!). But if you can, work at a plan of attack on that hunger call ahead of time. At least have an idea of an area, a neighbourhood, a zone that is known for restaurants wherever you are. Most cities have them.

In a timely fashion, this article popped up today on my newsfeed. Anthony Bourdain backs up what I’m talking about here in encouraging globe trotters in finding great, authentic food and drink while abroad. Because, after all, we should be sensible about allowing all our senses to enjoy travel adventures, right?!

What are some thoughts you have on how to track down great food and drinks while traveling?

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