The Most Italy Restaurant Ever

Ben Yagoda
6 min readDec 16, 2023

In November of this year. my wife, Gigi, and I took a short vacation to Italy which we dubbed The Visiting Three Northern Cities That Were New to Us Tour. It so happened that we had only allocated one night, a Tuesday, in the second city. We arrived by train shortly after lunch (panini on the train) and realized that our hotel was a couple of kilometers from the station. But it was a nice day, our small rolling suitcases were manageable, and we decided to walk.

We were glad we did. The center of the city was gracious and inviting, with small shops and stately venerable plazas.

Our hotel turned out to be in a pleasant but fairly nondescript residential neighborhood. We checked in, dumped our bags, and headed back to the center to explore some more.

On our initial walk I spotted a pasticerria that seemed to specialize in local baked goods. We headed back there, and my eye was caught by a dense black cake with a card next to it reading Pan dei morti. I knew enough Italian to understand that meant “bread of the dead”; looking it up later, I learned it’s a cake made with flour, cocoa, nuts and raisins, and offered every year on and around All Soul’s Day, November 1. In any case, accompanied by my go-to drink, caffe machiatto, it was a fine snack.

We got back to the hotel around 6 and lay down and read for a while. As is well known, people in Italy eat dinner later than in America. Restaurants there generally open in the evening at 7:30 or 8, but we make it a point of pride never to walk in before 8, and if we can hold out, considerably later, for the simple reason that we would rather share the space with Italians and locals than be there all alone, or, worse yet, be with a bunch of (admittedly fellow) American tourists.

We decided we didn’t want to go all the way back to the center and looked into restaurants in the area with my favorite resource. No, not the Michelin Guide — Google Maps. It turned out there was a place nearby with a 4.6 rating, and well over 200 reviews, not a few of them enthusiastic. It seemed to be a bit fancier than our usual — a ristorante rather than a trattoria — but we decided to put on our presentable shoes instead of our sneakers and live a little.

We walked in the door at 8:20 or so and saw … a room full of empty tables, elegantly set with crystal and white tablecloths. It would have been completely silent if not for the piped-in tinkling piano music. But then a forty-ish man, in jeans, a pressed cotton shirt and a sport jacket, greeted us warmly, as if we were old friends. He seemed more like a proprietor than a manager or maitre’ d. He gestured at the empty tables and, in Italian, recited the days of the week: “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.” With each day, he raised his hand higher in the air, as if to measure the increasing number of customers he expected on each succeeding day.

He led us to a table, took our orders for aqua frizzante, handed us menus, and retreated. In due time a female waiter (somewhat rare in Italy, in our experience) emerged with the water and a basket of local bread and took our orders. She came back a few minutes later with something we hadn’t ordered, a gift: a small, crisp, delicious fritter of cod and potato for each of us.

This and succeeding photos by Gigi Simeone

Gigi and I tend to share dishes at restaurants. In Italy, that used to be, not exactly frowned upon, but looked upon uncomprehendingly. But that’s changed over the years, and along with our antipasto — a delicate sort of zucchini flan in a light cream sauce — the waiter brought out an empty small plate for sharing.

For our main course, we each ordered a primo. Gigi had a traditional local pasta, casconcelli, filled with grated bread and cheese and served with a mushroom sauce.

I chose gnochetti, small gnocchi made from beets as well as the customary potatoes. It was the height of truffle season in Northern Italy, and I ordered the dish expressly because it featured shaved truffles. The owner came over and asked “Bianco or nero?” — white or black? (He said other words, too, but those were the ones I understood.) Now, I had to think about the answer. I am no truffle connoisseur, but I know that white truffles are much more expensive than black. After a pause, I said, “Nero” — a, because I really didn’t know the difference, and b, because, frankly, I didn’t want to find an an additional charge on my bill.

When it arrived, and I tasted the earthy yet delicate flavor, I really couldn’t see how white truffles could have been any more delicious.

By time time we finished, and I was in the middle of my second glass of the excellent local red wine, it was well past nine. No other customers had arrived and it was clear that on this chilly Tuesday, none were coming. But there was no sign that this bothered the staff (a woman who appeared to be the chef had come into the entry area and sat down, and was having a lively conversation with the waiter and the owner). And it didn’t bother us.

The waitress asked if we wanted dessert or coffee and we declined, indicating we would just finish the wine. And then she returned with another gift: delicate cookies and candied lemon rinds. Guess what? They were great.

From past experience, we knew the bill wouldn’t be presented until we asked for it. So we munched the cookies and sipped wine, and eventually caught the waitress’s eye and motioned for il conto. The damages were 91 Euro — about $99. I wanted to pay in cash, both so that the restaurant could avoid the credit-card fee and so that I could get change to leave a tip (another one of those things, like sharing, that have become more common in Italy over the years).

I put two 50 Euro notes in the tray. She returned with two 5s. In other words, because they didn’t have exact change, the restaurant refunded us 1 Euro.

As we walked out into the cool November night, I felt the sense of well-being that comes with a great meal in an Italian restaurant (clearly, the best in the world), gratitude for the graciousness with which we’d been treated, and a strong conviction: no way would he have upcharged us for the white truffles.

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Ben Yagoda

Author, "The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. " www.benyagoda.com. Linktree https://linktr.ee/benyagoda