In my house, dinner is sacred and eating out is a ritual celebration. I made it my mission while studying abroad to find the absolute best of the best when it came to dining out, and my dedication paid off.
To no surprise, Italy houses three of my favorite dishes in the entire world. Charting my way down the western front of the Italian boot from Verona to Sorrento, I’ve found the ultimate pizza, pasta and panini joints that have absolutely ruined me for anything less.
San Matteo’s Pizzeria in Verona
Transforming the interior of an old church into a pizza paradise, San Matteo’s gets my vote for best pizza in the world (or at least out of the 14 countries I’ve visited).
The first time I ate at San Matteo’s, my friends and I opted for a meat lover’s. Each topping had its own flavor – the Wurstel a little sweeter, the ham spiked with more salt, pepperoni adding a hot and spicy kick, the sausage more mild and peppery. Dip that baby in some hot oil and try not to order a second pizza… like we did.
I then split a large truffle, eggplant and pepperoni pie with another pizza lover on one of my last days in Verona; it’s an ultra thin variety packed with flavor. But enter the Italian pizza slice dilemma: To roll or not to roll. I prefer the roll and bite method. It’s like a pizza taco at that point that tastes just as incredible as it sounds.
Though I helped take down two pizzas that night, the truffle eggplant concoction is still my favorite. You can’t beat grilled eggplant, spicy pepperoni and savory truffle. But whichever topping you prefer, San Matteo’s is the absolute best.
Trattoria Ponte Vecchio in Florence
Ponte Vecchio, which literally means “Old Bridge,” is famous for its 18-karat gold jewelry. The entire bridge is lined with ancient micro-shops selling glittering varieties. I’m usually not one to settle for restaurants so close to a tourist destination, but our growling bellies led my family and me inside a little restaurant front facing the bridge – and I’ll forever be grateful that they did.
I can now say that my absolute favorite pasta dish in the world is a homemade pasta creation from Trattoria Ponte Vecchio. It’s a truffle cream Taglierini pasta featuring melty cheese mixed with seasonal pear inside homemade noodle pockets. The light Robiola cheese sauce clings to every pasta pouch shining under a delicate shaved truffle garnish. Pear was a surprising addition that perfectly balanced the creaminess of the sauce.
Our truffle pear pasta was paired side-by-side with homemade mushroom risotto followed shortly by a massive medium-rare T-bone steak with quartered artichokes, caramelized onions and fresh parsley. Is your mouth watering yet?
By the fourth hour, (yes I said fourth hour), Owner Franca Radolvich and her husband were sitting with us, sharing coffee and a bottle of excessively potent Sicilian dessert wine – the stuff is deadly. They welcomed us back for a return visit the next day like we were long lost family. Family and food are two of the most important things in the world to Franca and her husband. It’s a common theme across the country.
“Family is everything. It’s an institution, and food is a cult,” Franca said. “Food is a national pastime in Italy.”
Vini e Panini in Positano
The Amalfi Coast is one of the most beautiful beach lands in the world. It has that relaxed island feel with all the vibrant colors of red-hot chili peppers and giant fresh lemons – one of their specialties. But for me, Positano will always be the treasured spot where I found the most amazing focaccia bread panini I’ve ever eaten.
Vini e Panini is a little hidden, like most things in a town wound around the side of a cliff. It’s actually a wine shop filled to the gills with a variety of wines – red, white and in between. But to the right, once you step inside, is a massive case of meats, cheeses and spreads.
It’s make-your-own hoagie style here. My sandwich companion and I went with prosciutto crudo, turkey, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, lettuce, olive oil, salt and pepper. Saltiness from the cured meats, each distinct and extraordinary, blended with sweet sun-dried tomatoes broken up in the middle with a helping of refreshing, soft mozzarella. The bread was thick and dense, mellowing out the packed flavor inside.
In review, it still amazes me what an appreciation for food made with simple in-season ingredients thrives throughout this country. Light seasoning and fresh food – they’re paramount to an amazing meal because the Italians know life is too short not to enjoy every, single, bite.