I've realized I should stay away from restaurants famous for inventing a pasta dish. Alfredo (of fettuccini fame) and Carbonara (of penne fame) are both Roman restaurants—and they're both much more famous than they are good.
One of my favorite Italian specialties isn’t even on the menu—the conversations with other customers. In Rome, I talked about dessert with a man at a nearby table. He told me how his grandfather always said, in the local dialect, "The mouth cannot be finished until it smells of cows." The rustic foodie meant you must finish the meal with cheese.
“La vita e bella”...life is good in Italy. And the good life seems, like the cuisine, simple. Locals are really into the "marriage" of correct foods. An older wine needs a stronger cheese. Only a tourist would pull the fat off the prosciutto.
To me, Italian cuisine is a symphony—the ingredients are the instruments. The quality is important...but even good instruments can be out of tune. The marriage of the ingredients is what provides the tonality. When things are in tune, you taste it.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2010 Rick Steves