Whenever I travel, eating and drinking plays a very important part of the experience. In fact, my travel companion and I often argue about this, because she says I choose our holiday destinations purely based on a particular restaurant I want to eat at. This is not true! Not at all. Well, a small detour from London to Rome does not really count, does it?
Travelling in Italy is another story altogether, for there is no need to make any detours: it is impossible to eat badly, and if you have been recommended a super-special restaurant, you’re just doubly blessed! And it’s even better to stumble upon a tucked-away little trattoria — there is nothing like the thrill of discovering a great restaurant on your own.
Here is my very own list of restaurants that have made Italy even more special for me. Some are small trattorias, some fancy Michelin-starred restaurants and some slow food osterias. Each one has its individual character and I would not mind eating at them — again and again.
Senigallia-Marche, Via Banchina Di Levante, 60019 Senigallia, Ancona (+39-71-65463, www.uliassi.it)
I was in Italy, shooting with NDTV for my new television programme Italian Khana, and two of my friends each booked a table at the same restaurant for me, for two different evenings — they had both wanted me to sample the best of the region. Finally I introduced the two of them, we made one big party and went to this magical restaurant together. I must admit that 18 days of slogging was worthwhile for just this one single meal at Uliassi.
Mauro Uliassi is not just a chef, and his restaurant is not just an eatery. Mauro is a magician, who, I think, has some sort of secret magic wand. A meal at Uliassi is about art, and about an experience. The décor is stark yet sexy. This is a beach restaurant and, what with the white patio, Philippe Starck furniture and the Adriatic Sea providing the soundtrack, you just need to sit back and enjoy.
Claudio ordered the 10-course tasting menu for us, and the next three hours were a pure state of turiya, as food and spiritual writer Liz Gilbert calls it. Fresh red mullet with citrus essence, duck liver pâté sandwiched between melting wafers, mussel soup, zen prawns, smoked spaghetti with clams... I can close my eyes and still imagine that first bite going down my throat.
Each course was almost painfully beautiful, and you felt a twinge of guilt for taking the first mouthful, but when you finally did taste it, the thrill of doing something so sinful put paid to any guilt you might have had. Each course is an example of contrast and depth, and you can tell by the way Mauro plays around with temperature, flavour and texture that you are in the hands of a very gifted chef. With Mauro in the kitchen, and his sister Catia manning the front, this is a team created in heaven.
Note: If you’re vegetarian or have an allergy to seafood, don’t waste your money or his efforts — the restaurant is predominantly a showcase for seafood.
Via Ghibbelina, 87, Florence (+39-55-242757, www.enotecapinchiorri.com)
This particular three-star Michelin restaurant in Florence is special to me. I had my first taste of Tignanello [a revolutionary custom wine produced by Antinori] here, all those years ago. I was required to entertain an important business colleague and my friend Serra had insisted this was the place to do it in. I remember that the bill was a huge shock to my 22-year-old eyes, but I got over that rather quickly.
I ate there again and it was even better than I remembered. The sea bass encrusted with dry fruits — lightly grilled, lighter than air; white chocolate soufflé; grilled fleshy and moist pears dripping wet with Marsala... Just thinking of this makes me hungry again. What is interesting about the cuisine is its beautiful blend of French technique and classical Tuscan style.
I Due Cippi
Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 26/a, Saturnia, 58050 Manciano (+39-564-601074)
In September, a few years ago, our destination was a sleepy town called Saturnia with a total population of perhaps 2,000 people. Since then it has become chic, trendy and expensive. On one of our food- and pleasure-seeking adventures, we came across the small but busy little restaurant. The perfect autumn evening tempted us to place ourselves on their outside patio. The chatter of flowing Italian syllables, the sound of forks and knives clinging against plates and, most importantly, the aroma of freshly cooked food... It almost seemed as if the restaurant had a life of its own and had seduced us into halting there. Yes, this is where I want to eat! It seemed the whole of Saturnia was eating there, and after waiting a bit, we did get a table.
I was left speechless. Mushroom crêpes that smelled of woody forest; milky plump mozzarella that disintegrated in the mouth; the pasta of Tortelli, so fine you could see the stuffing of chestnuts! This was not a fancy restaurant but, by glory, the meal could beat any of the Michelin-rated places for ingenuity, virtue of ingredients and cooking style. The restaurant has since become very famous, but I am proud to have eaten there when it was still the best-kept secret in Tuscany.
Ristorante Alla Torre
Via I Maggio 75, 28078 Romagnano Sesia, Novara (+39-163-826411, www.ristorante allatorre.it)
This quaint restaurant in Romagnano Sesia, in the north of Italy, has amazing food. We were here during our trip to Piedmont for my partner Gita’s birthday. I had chosen four slow food restaurants for this trip. Truth be told, it was Lucia’s cooking and Andrea’s hospitality at Alla Torre that blew us away. We had chosen the tasting menu, and I am still embarrassed to remember how much I gushed over every plate that appeared before me. The perfectly grilled crayfish with black rice; the beetroot berry shot (a recipe I stole and incorporated in Delhi as soon as we returned); the perfectly made eggplant gnocchi with lavender and cherry tomatoes. After the sixth course, no one could really eat any more but we kept going. What a decadent lunch that was! Finally, after a few shots of Molinelli, they managed to get rid of us at 5pm.
I was back in Alla Torre recently and Lucia outdid herself yet again with the most sensual bubbly, foamy Bagna Cauda (a fondue-like dipping dish made with garlic and anchovies). One more recipe bagged for my little black book!
Via Roma 46, Ravello (+39-89-857156)
Ravello is no more than a little balcony of a village overlooking the Amalfi coast. But it is the treasure-house of Italy, and I believe that everyone must visit it at least once before they die. What made Ravello unforgettable was the meal at Cumpa Cosimo.
The Alla Torre restaurant in Novara
Signora Netta Bottone, the owner and the cook, is always happy to advise customers on what they should eat — it also gives her a chance to practise her school English! We got no menus; she came to our table, decided what we should eat, what we should drink, and what we should pay. When we asked for the bill, she marched to a calculator, mumbled a few words, and merely told us the amount.
A sort of Earth Mother, who cures her own Parma ham, makes her own olive oil, grows her own vegetables and swears by the recipes handed down to her by her grandmother. I was not cooking Italian in those days; I had sold my restaurant Mezzaluna and did not see myself cooking Italian again. That night Gita said to me, "That’s you! That is what you will be 20 years down the line." I must admit I was secretly pleased about it. (But she was wrong: I started bullying my guests five years later, not 20!)
The wonderful ravioli with crabmeat, a huge platter of simply boiled seafood, langoustines tossed in limoncello, pappardelle in wild boar sauce... It truly was a meal to remember!
Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
Via Montecuccoli 6, Milan 20147 (2-416886, www.aimoenadia.com)
Don’t let the location make you nervous — the neighbourhood of Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is not very fashionable. Because if you do let the environs put you off, you’ll miss the magic that husband-and-wife team, Aimo and Nadia, create with their daughter Staphania. I have always had to book a table much in advance of my visit, and I would suggest you do the same. Only the freshest of ingredients are used in their kitchen, and it isn’t a cliché in this particular case. I cannot begin to describe the food. Let us just say: it is the closest you will experience paradise where food is concerned, and yes, the price tag of 110 euros per person without wines is not too bad a price for this little experience of heaven. l
Ritu Dalmia runs the Italian restaurant, Diva, in New Delhi. Her first cookbook, Italian Khana, was released in 2009 (Random House India; Rs 750).