Food stall in Bologna

There are always more ways to fall in love with Italy. The art and architecture, the history and culture, the food and wine: They all offer guaranteed travel joy, topped off by Italian warmth, whether from the sunshine or the hospitality.

Yet some of Italy’s most enticing cities can feel overrun with other travelers. The key is to explore beyond the usual stops, dine strategically, and make your vacation budget match your appetite. Here’s a rundown of great ways to eat like a doge, away from the hungry hordes in three incredible Italian destinations.

Rome

There’s so much to love about Rome. The Italian capital is a magnet for all the world’s sightseers, who flock here to absorb bits of antiquity and legend. And to eat so very well. The city’s winding streets are lined with restaurants, especially in the central neighborhoods of Piazza Navona, Pantheon, and Campo dei Fiori.

A food tour is a smart way to get started on Roman gastronomy, which has some hyper-local elements. The local experts behind Walks of Italy offer a three-and-half-hour food tour through Rome’s old Jewish Ghetto ($92 per person; includes food), where you can sample fare at vintage trattorias and the unique dishes invented and/or perfected here, like crisp-fried artichokes. The tour winds its way through Campo dei Fiori, where guests finish by making their own Roman-style, thin-crust pizza at Origano (which also has a Trevi location).

While you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss the eccentric gelato at Fatamorgana Chiavari, where you can savor flavors like wasabi chocolate, pineapple-ginger, and ricotta-honey-coconut. By day, don’t miss Campo de Fiori’s daily (except Sundays) street market to catch seasonal fruit and juices, and samples of local meat, cheese, and wine.

Just west of Piazza Navona, dine traditionally inside or out at Da Francesco, serving tasty pizza, pasta, and Roman dishes with flair, including the classic saltimbocca alla Romana (veal wrapped with prosciutto and sage, and marinated in wine). 

Cooks will appreciate hands-on learning with Walks of Italy’s rooftop cooking class ($98 per person; includes food and wine), where small groups can make ravioli and a local pasta dish with local chef instructors.

Bologna

Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, is a central destination that’s growing in popularity thanks to its eclectic history, progressive style, and affordability. Home to the world’s very first university (founded in 1088), Bologna feels like a vibrant college town with its many portico-lined streets radiating from the central Piazza Maggiore and the massive (and peculiar) Basilica San Petronio.

Bologna is synonymous with its world-famous Bolognese ragu, which here is only called “ragu,” and pairs well with tagliatelle pasta. (In Italy you’ll soon learn that of the approximately 1,000 kinds of pasta, each one pairs only with one particular sauce or flavor. And FYI, meatballs are only served on their own). The city’s other famous dish is tortellini en brodo, a seemingly simple, altogether scrumptious soup of ham- and cheese–filled pasta rings, served in a simple chicken or beef broth.

Both dishes are considered primi (first courses), but don’t let that stop you from sampling them every chance you get. At Trattoria da Me, Chef Elisa Rusconi has updated her grandfather’s beloved restaurant (founded in 1937) as one of the city’s best for traditional-meets-modern cuisine (main courses from $13 euro, or around $15). Her seasonal menus heighten classic flavors in exciting ways, including spectacular 12-hour slow-cooked ragu, daily changing vegetarian entrées, and unforgettable antipasti and desserts. 

Il Rovescio is just a short walk from the town center, celebrates regional ingredients sourced only from local farmers and purveyors, with focus on produce over meat (including vegan dishes). The menu is new each month, and every taste is a unique delight, from the fresh-baked charcoal bread, to the perfectly melty mortadella and cheeses, to organic duck-stuffed “cake” with greens.

To taste-test a wider array, don’t miss Mercato delle Erbe, a public market by day, with a Bolognese food hall, pizzeria, and cafés open for lunch through late-night. The market offers open-air seating along Via Belvedere, which becomes a flirty nightlife zone after dark. Alternatively, head to Via Pescherie Vecchie, a pedestrian street just off Piazza Maggiore, to check out local produce and sample provincial cheese and hams at the abundant osterias. Or, bring a picnic to eat at the old-school “pub” Osteria del Sole (which has been open since 1465!), a bar that welcomes bring your own food.

Venice

Just because it’s one of the world’s top tourist destinations doesn’t mean you can’t escape the masses and find a more intimate side of Venice. The Veneto capital is rich in history, and proudly owns its own style of cuisine.

Seafood tops the list in this lagoon city, and two go-to dishes are branzino (roasted seabass wrapped in thinly sliced, herb-coated potatoes); and sarde en saor (fried sardines served with vinegar and herbs). For excellent versions of both, head to traditional Vecia Cavana, located on a small side street in Cannaregio. If you're looking for something central, try the polished Acquapazza in San Marco, which is complete with a lovely open terrace. For elevated dining, just off Piazza San Marco, explore modern cuisine by a Venetian-born chef at Canova Restaurant, located inside the historic Baglioni Hotel Luna (main courses from 42 euros, or $47). The dining room’s 18th-century elegance is perfect for romance, and in warmer months, you can opt for terrace seating with views of the Grand Canal and Royal Gardens. Tip: be sure to make reservations at every restaurant.

Venice is a big day-drinking town, and we have its many bacari (wine bars) to thank for pouring prosecco and Aperol spritzes in time for breakfast. Pair your drinks with cicchetti, small snacks similar to tapas, that usually cost around $2 each. 

Walks of Italy’s Venice food tour ($86 per person; includes food) starts at the Rialto Market for quick basics on the city’s gastronomic traditions, then introduces one tantalizing bacaro after another, along with each one’s best cicchetti. Top among them is tiny Al Mercà in San Polo (don’t miss the prosciutto with truffle cream cheese), with a fine-dining osteria on Lido Island, just outside Venice lagoon.

Stroll through Cannaregio for sites and eateries that feel farther from the luggage-toting throngs, and beat the supper rush with a late-afternoon canal-side table outside at the charming bacaro (a wine bar where you can also get small plates) Al Timon. Alternatively, venture south to the Dorsoduro neighborhood for cicchetti at Alsquero and Cantine del Vino già Schiavi. Although each of these bacaros are small, the service is fast. Better still, once you’re nibbling cicchetti and sipping Veneto wine there, you’ll feel like a true Venetian.

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