My wife and I spent two weeks eating our way through Italy, hitting the major cities and varied eateries. Two nights in Venice, four in Florence, two nights in Sienna, and six nights in Rome. I spent a fair amount of time researching the eats through chowhound, so feel obliged to report. We generally tried to keep average food bill, well, average, by going high/low in our restaurant picks. Here are our reviews. In case you don't want to read the whole thing: top place was Osteria alle testiere. Behind this (well behind, in our opinion), were Paris, Cibreo, and Hostaria Costanza.
Night 1. We arrived late in Venice and went to a place near our hotel: Antica Adelaide. The cichetti were really good- fresh, good selection of hot/cold filling/light items. We stayed for dinner, which was mixed. We also had to wait nine years for a table, even though the place was mostly empty. We ate clam risotto. Clams were fantastic, but the risotto a bit underdone and runny. This place is marked as ‘a pick’ in the Lonely Planet guide, but it isn’t so hot and I wouldn't recommend it.
The next night we had what I thought was the best meal of our trip at Osteria alle testiere. This is a small place, seatings at 7 and 9:30 or so, reservations essential. Intimate setting, excellent service (utterly flawless), very knowledgeable wait staff (particularly about the wine list). And excellent, creative modern Italian fare. We each had a warm octopus salad, followed by a lovely beet-mascarpone-shrimp ravioli. Outstanding. For entrees I had shark, while my wife had tuna with a balsamic reduction. For dessert we shared an herbed panna cotta. Getting a reservation will take some planning, but this place is absolutely worth it.
Next we went to Florence. The second night we ate at Trattoria Cibreo. This was well worth the effort of showing up early for a table, etc., perhaps the best meal we had in Florence. All tourists, but very polite and helpful staff, good service. To start I had pate, followed by a potato sformata, followed by braised short ribs. The latter two were fantastic. My wife had an excellent polenta with fresh olive oil, and roast chicken, also perfectly done. All in all this was a very enjoyable meal.
The next day after a visit to the Palazzo Pitti we had a truly outstanding lunch at a trattoria near the Palazzo. Almost no tourists in the place. Trattoria casalinga. We each had artichoke risotto, which was perfect- creamy, stuffed with artichoke flavor. She followed with carpaccio on a bed or arugula, while I had a bollito misto. Both perfect. This place was inexpensive and exactly what one wants from a trattoria. Most of our other lunches were at the Mercato Centrale, where we ate at Nerbone’s. We really enjoyed these lunches- cheap, good quality, and filling. We often had artichoke, followed by staple tuscan cuisine: bean, faro, and sausage stew, ribollita, and of course their tripe sandwiches. Simple, easy, and completely satisfying.
We ate at two other places worth mentioning, both near Santa Croce, and both moderately priced. First, we had bistecca alla fiorentina at Osteria de’Benci. The steak was perfectly prepared, with plenty of arugula, parmesan, and good olive oil. But after arriving, one look at the pasta menu and we had to order a couple of dishes to boot- gnocchi with asparagus and spaghetti with hot chilis, garlic. Both were fantastic. This place was another nice find- great food, good service, unpretentious, with a good mix of tourists and locals.
The last night we ate at Osteria del Caffe Italiano (another Lonely Planet pick). By this time I was literally starting to burst, so my review may be somewhat colored by lack of appetite. But I didn’t particularly care for this place. The food (shared salad followed by lentil soup and roast chicken for me, roasted vegetables for my wife) was OK, but the chicken was a dry and flavorless, and the place was a bit more pretentious than Osteria de Benci- and largely empty. We did have a very good, helpful server- this wasn’t so much the problem as the general atmosphere of the place. But I would punt on this one.
We then went to Sienna. The first night we ate at Antica Osteria da Divo. My wife loved the food at this place. I thought it was overdone- fussy, too many contrasting flavors and ingredients. The atmosphere fantastic, but the food pretentious (the latter according to me, not my beloved). I don’t remember the appetizer. We had another artichoke risotto for 1st course, nowhere near as good as Trattoria casalinga- bland with little artichoke. My wife agreed here For second I had a guinea fowl breast, while my wife had a roasted rack of boar. My wife loved the boar, but I found the fowl, well, foul.
We made up for it with two great meals the next day. The first was lunch at Osteria castelvecchio, which was mostly attended by locals. We each had a salad, pici senesi with a ham/mushroom cream. The pici were particularly great- chewy yet light, filling, flavorful, and the place was comfortable, nice, and had great service. To our surprise, when we paid our bill the waitress (and I think owner) brought us complementary cantucci con vin santo. This looked to be the standard at the place. Well worth a lunch or dinner. That night we ate at a similarly unpretentious and outstanding restaurant to the NE of the city center. L’Osteria. Again, almost entirely locals. The atmosphere was somewhat rustic but very comfortable, service was good, the food simple yet flavorful and excellent preparation. I had spaghetti with truffles, absolutely jammed with truffles. Again, complementary cantucci with vin santo. Well worth a visit for a relaxed, traditional, satisfying meal.
The next day we went to Rome. We arrived late on a Saturday in the middle of some sort of political drama, and the restaurants were packed. The only place we could get a reservation was Al Moro. The service was good, and the clientele were well-heeled to say the least (and mostly regulars, I think). But the food was spotty. I had spaghettia alla bottarga, which I had been looking forward to for a while. The spaghetti was undercooked, and the bottarga fairly flavorless. My wife had a spaghetti con vongole, which was also mediocre- the clams didn’t seem particularly fresh or flavorful. We did have a great dessert of poached pear and fig- outstanding dessert, but this didn't make up for the entrees. I would avoid this place.
Again, we worked to make up for this experience. First, Ristorante Paris. I heard mixed reviews of this place, but we thoroughly enjoyed the evening- food, service, and meal. We each ate the fish tasting menu- highlights were a lovely skate soup, and roasted sea bass with potatoes. Simple, elegant preparation, with outstanding ingredients and flavors.
A few other meals that stood out. We did one dinner at Hostaria costanza. This place was quite an experience, dining in the basement of pompei’s theater. There was a good mix of locals and tourists. We really enjoyed the atmosphere and service- not as formal as Paris by any means, but still fancy. The food was truly outstanding. I had an octopus carpaccio, followed by a seafood pasta (scallops, shrimp), and a roast veal chop. My wife, thinking of Tuscany, ordered an excellent ribollita followed by wood-grilled squid. Both fantastic. I would put this place up with Paris- a great modern take on Roman cuisine. We ate a meal at Da Armando da Pantheon- good Roman fare, nothing outstanding and elbow to elbow with tourists.
These meals we interspersed with dinners at a little trattoria near our hotel (we stayed a few blocks from the trevi fountain). Trattoria da Olympia. I wouldn’t seek it out, but this place was a good, solid trattoria- stuffed with locals, and with wait service with ‘character.’ The food was simple and solid- great pizzas (my wife’s favorite of the trip- great fresh sauce, thin crust, simple, fresh ingredients). I had a very well-prepared linguine con vongole one night (yes, it was good enough that we visited it twice), and good liver the next. If you’re in the area and need a simple, solid meal- look for it in the alleys just SW of the piazza barberini (on or just off via degli avignonesi.