Inevitably, if you love to travel and love to eat, you’ll hit every destination armed with restaurant recommendations from foodie friends, bloggers, guide books and the like.
This is often a wonderful resource. But it comes with a downside: a place that’s already popular is often crowded with tourists – not quite the authentic experience you may have been seeking. Personally, I don’t want to hear my native language (especially when it’s LOUD) when I’m traveling abroad. Unless I’m in the UK, of course.
As I get older, I also find that simple meals of fresh ingredients meticulously prepared are infinitely more pleasurable than course after course of “fancy” food at Michelin-starred restaurants. That’s because: 1) I’m no longer interested in making eating a multi-hour activity, no matter how creative the chef is. 2) I can’t eat that much at one sitting. 3) Too often, the food is so rich that I feel vaguely queasy – or more than vaguely – after consuming an elaborate meal.
Hence, the new “Corner” philosophy.
Simply put, instead of the place everyone’s been telling you about (which may, of course, be fabulous), look nearby for an unassuming restaurant that’s frequented by the locals. Better yet, get a recommendation for a non-touristy place by asking a friendly shopkeeper for suggestions. Chances are, not only will the food itself be memorable, but there will be a story or experience attached to the meal. Bonus: there’s a good chance the local favorite is a lot less expensive than the tourist trap.
Here are a few places we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Milan, Florence and Sicily. As I found out later, they’re all highly rated on Trip Advisor — proving that if you trust your instincts they’ll lead you somewhere good, even if it’s not “undiscovered”!
Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence
My husband and I collect antique prints of fish and shells for the guest bathroom (although, truth be told, we are running out of wall space). This gives each trip a shopping focus and often leads to interesting experiences as we search for our “souvenirs”.
In Florence, we made our way to a store we’d located online, only to discover that their prints were all reproductions. Even though we weren’t buying anything, the owner generously steered us to another shop that did sell original prints. And when we asked about nearby places to eat typical Florentine food, she suggested this restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch (charcuterie to start; risotto carciofi for me and pasta bolognese for my husband) with a murmur of Italian in the background.
Two days later, we wandered into Nuti, after bypassing the restaurant a friend had recommended which had an impossible wait time and seemed to be full of Americans.
Although hardly “non-touristy”, as the menu is in both English and Italian, Nuti’s food was delicious (beautiful grilled eggplant, zucchini, red and yellow peppers — all sliced very thin and seasoned with garlic and olive oil; fritto misto di mare for me and zesty pasta cinghiale for my husband) and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing; again, with a Florentine clientele.
Piatti Primi, Palermo
Tucked in a side street near the famous Quattro Centi but off the main drag, this “typical” restaurant offered simple Sicilian cuisine (more grilled veggies, pasta with swordfish) that was simply terrific.
Finally, one of the best meals we had was the squid ink pasta with anchovy sauce my husband cooked in the kitchen of our condo in Taormina. It not only tasted amazing, it combined the fun of shopping for local ingredients, the leisure to eat at a time that was convenient, the flexibility to get our bread from a wonderful bakery and our dessert from a different pasticceria, AND we didn’t have to dress up.