You know you’re in Italy when simple food combinations taste sublime and waiters welcome you like old friends. Sadly, those two experiences are often missed by many travellers who opt for fixed priced ‘tourist menus’ and ‘restaurants’ on a town’s main square.
In Teulada, there are very few tourists, so there are no 15-euro generic Italian menus offering ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ and no piazza that’s so lively you’re prepared to sacrifice quality for a couple of hours of people-watching. There are only a few eateries open here at this time of year and two that are so good we’ve broken our travel writer rule and returned to each of them twice. Why?
Well, firstly, because neither is really a ristorante – in fact, they each call themselves a pizzeria and trattoria, which means, aside from them specializing in pizza and rustic regional specialties like Spaghetti con Vongole e Bottarga the atmosphere is warm and friendly and there are no formalities. They just make it so easy to keep going back to.
Dining is casual – the owner and waiter welcome you warmly, even if you’re dining for the first time, they suggest a table but if you don’t like it you can sit elsewhere, and there’s a television screen on the wall, annoying at first, but after a while you don’t even notice it.
People are dressed in the clothes they’ve worn that day. One evening, at our favourite local, Grotta Azzura, there’s a table of labourers in their dirty, paint-dappled work gear and another tavolo of soldiers in khakis. Nobody notices. If they do, they don’t care.
Everyone seems to know each other, and even if they don’t, they treat each other like they do. A local specialty is brought out for us to taste – as if our opinion matters. Extra bread is brought out when we finish the first basket – at no extra cost. There’s a complimentary liqueur at the end of the meal. There is even a discount on the bill. And that’s before the owner finds out we’re travel writers. On the way to the markets the next morning, our waiter remembers us and shouts out a cheery buongiorno.
Secondly, the focus is firmly on the food. Everything is so simple – a plate of the most delicious cheeses and proscuittos are served on their own, pastas are handmade and come with just one or two ingredients. It all tastes sublime. The menu is short – only a few antipasti, compact lists of primi and secondi, and just a few dolci. The dishes are native and traditional to the village or town, or at least the surrounding area, and at their most global, the region or island. There are no generic Italian dishes to be found. Pizzas are the exception to this rule of course – and so they should be!
The kitchen is only using fresh local produce so if they didn’t get what they wanted at the market that morning then they’ll simply say it’s not available rather than resort to frozen food. There will always be a surprise or two that’s not on the menu – perhaps it’s on a blackboard or you have to ask in case the waiter is so busy he forgets to mention it – a special that really is special, inspired by the fresh produce the chef has discovered that day, rather than a ‘special’ that really means the kitchen is using up whatever produce has ‘today’ as the use-by date.
Sometimes these simple trattorias and pizzerias in Italy are tucked down alleyways or hidden in drab backstreets, because their location is not important. Often there won’t be a menu in English or any other language other than Italian. There won’t be a fixed price menu because for the quality of the produce and the generous size of the servings, the food is already a bargain. You get what you pay for.
And that’s the point. These places are almost entirely about the food – and that’s why the locals are here, and that’s why you should be too. Do what the locals do. Have a drink before or after dinner on the piazza if it’s enigmatic, but that restaurant on the main square is probably not going to serve up dishes as welcoming to your palate as these back-street or low-key locals.