It was in Venice, with my wife Jools, when the true meaning of Italian food got me, and got me good. We were immersed in this amazing city, checking out cultural icons such as St Mark’s Square (with its extraordinarily expensive coffee), Harry’s Bar (for Bellinis), gondolas, art and of course, tourists.
Back in 2003 we were on a budget, so dinner in this overpriced city was looking like a salami panini, until we followed some Italians, dressed for dinner, down a side street. They disappeared inside this modest looking trattoria – no name above the door and no menu we could see and thankfully, none of those photographs of food outside.
To be honest, it felt a little intimidating and they may not have greeted us quite as enthusiastically as the locals but they gave us a table. The menu was passed our way and we went for a decent local red, recommended by our waiter – his brother-in-law’s vineyard of course – and I went for a linguini with langoustines and a fritto misto – a fish dish fried at the table.
Delectable: Positano on the Amalfi Coast (above) is where Jamie had his most memorable Italian meal, while on his honeymoon
MY TOP TIPS
Pukka: The much-loved TV chef
- Avoid anywhere with a waiter beckoning from the street.
- Food photographed on a menu and hung on a board? Walk on.
- Ask your waiter what they recommend that’s local to the area.
- Want to go Italian? Cappuccinos are only served at breakfast – after that, it’s espresso only. Usually served standing at a bar – it’s not for lingering over.
- Eat spaghetti with just a fork – Italians never use a spoon as well – and never a knife with pasta!
Oh man, that pasta! Two grilled langoustines atop a pile of linguini mixed with sweet tomato sauce, so simple. The pasta was unlike anything else I’d experienced – dense in character, with bite, but not too filling and something I couldn’t quite pin down.
It remains the most pleasantly surprising plate of food I’ve had. How can something as simple as egg and flour turn out to be so ridiculously tasty?
The Italians have got it right when it comes to eating – it’s something to be lingered over, and shopping for fresh produce is part of the experience. That’s why I want to share my personal favourites with you – some I discovered while working on my most recent TV series and book, and others are firm old favourites.
Best street food
Naples is the birthplace of pizza Margherita and pizza bomba – dough balls stuffed with tomatoes, covered in parmesan and deep fried. Head to the Old Spanish Quarter to find classic street food such as pizza fritta, one of the oldest forms of pizza. The texture is almost doughnut-like on the outside and creamy in the middle.
Check out Da Fernanda, a family business that has been going for more than a century and regulars just keep coming back for more. No restaurant – just eat on the pavement at Pizza Fritta da Fernanda, 141, Via Speranzella.
Best food market
For a holiday I love the south as it’s completely bonkers. Rome, however, is where I’d want to live and it’s home to my favourite food market.
Piazza San Giovanni di Dio is an enormous open-air old fruit and veg market on the outskirts of the city in Monteverde Nuovo.
It’s authentic, tourist-free and absolute chaos, but friendly.
I tasted an incredible bowlful of beautiful courgettes, cured pig’s cheek (guanciale), parsley and sweet tomato here. It’s cheap, tasty, honest food and you’ll find gritty, everyday Romans shopping here.
Best fish market
You must check out La Pescharia in Cantania, in the eastern part of Sicily. It’s a noisy, friendly, fish market in the old town behind the Piazza Duomo, held early weekday mornings (it closes after lunch). It’s a real treat to see stalls groaning with everything from swordfish and prawns to sea urchins and trays of clams and mussels. It’s wet underfoot – don’t wear flip-flops!
Best simple food
You can find really delicious, unfussy food in Florence. Il Guscio (zebgastronomia.com) my favourite, is a few minutes’ walk from the river Arno and ticks so many boxes – simple food with informal but very professional service.
‘It was in Venice with my wife Jools when the true meaning of Italian food got me, and got me good,’ said Jamie
Also in Florence, Zeb (zebgastronomia.com) is a mother-and-son team running a tiny, bright place – ideal for lunch. They offer lovely small plates of traditional Tuscan food from family recipes – pear and ricotta ravioli anyone?
Most memorable meal
On our honeymoon we went for dinner at the Hotel Il San Pietro in Positano (ilsanpietro.it) where we ate what I called Honeymoon Spaghetti (I’ve published the recipe).
It’s undercooked spaghetti, with tomato, fennel, and shellfish, cooked in a giant greaseproof paper bag. When it’s brought out from the kitchen it looks so flamboyant, like a giant pillow, then when it’s burst all the steam comes out and there’s this incredible smell and flavour – and it’s a triple pleasure if you’re with your missus.
Jamie recommends visiting Settimio, near Campo De’ Fiori, Rome, for Teresa’s famous potato gnocchi (stock image)
You can’t beat British journalist John Hooper’s The Italians (Penguin) for entertaining political, cultural and social insight. Who knew there was no word for hangover in Italian, it’s a social faux-pas to read at the table, they hate dishwashers, they always eat in Italian restaurants abroad and office parties never happen.
For any friends visiting the Amalfi Coast, and Positano in particular, I recommend they go to Il San Pietro, just for a drink. It’s an expensive five-star hotel but has the most stunning terrace which is a wonderfully romantic spot for an aperitivo. Have a Bellini, served with incredibly good olives.
It’s a great drive from Naples south past the teeming Amalfi coast to Paestum, a Unesco World Heritage site with three ancient Greek temples and the hilltop town of Castellabate alongside the Cilento National Park. This region is famous for buffalo farms producing the sweetest, melt-in-the-mouth mozzarella – you’ll find it fresh on every menu. I can’t resist the baby courgettes stuffed with mozzarella or served with local green figs.
Jamie’s new book celebrates the grandmothers of Italy and shares their cherished family recipes. For even more pasta know-how Pasta Grannies (YouTube) has amazing cooking tutorials, for example, from 93-year-old Rosa who makes ferricelli pasta – wearing pearls.
Best for pasta
Another honeymoon spot was high in the hills above the sea at Positano – Donna Rosa (drpositano.com). It’s family-run, and the daughter Erika is a sensational cook. I fell in love with her garlic, oil and salted anchovies dish.
Settimio, near Campo De’ Fiori, in Rome has been family-run since 1932, and Teresa and her husband are now in charge. It’s hard to get a reservation but go for a Thursday when she makes her famous potato gnocchi – following Roman tradition of serving certain dishes on certain days. Take your phrase book – no English spoken here!
Steaks served at Dario Cecchini in Panzano Tuscany (dariocecchini.com). He cooks a very traditional steak that will knock your socks off. No reservations taken and you can bring your own wine.
Crudo in Bari, Puglia. Think sushi but this is raw fresh fish with lemon. Sensational.
Ask for culurgiones in Ogliastra, Sardinia. Ravioli made from semolina flour, delicious when served with roasted squash.
Fishy business: Jamie’s favourite fish market is La Pescharia in Cantania (above), in the eastern part of Sicily
Food for thought: Take a culinary tour around Italy
Italians wouldn’t dream of giving children a different menu to adults. But don’t panic, parents and grandparents – Italians will do anything for your little ones.
So ask for a ‘piccolo piatto’ (small plate) or, if you’re worried about them going hungry, pasta pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce) which will be sensational.
What to drink on holiday… and back home
Valpolicella – lightly chilled from May-October. It’s an easy-drinking red with light tannins you can buy at most supermarkets back home.
Amaro – a digestif. It’s a collection of regional sweet, botanical spices and artichokes – and on ice it’s fantastic. It’s just a little something to enjoy at the end of the meal. It’s gentle but you don’t want to go crazy with them.
If you’re buying an Italian red wine, I reckon you should pay a little more than usual and enjoy a decent Chianti, Barolo or Amarone to savour with Bolognese and hearty stews.
Vin Santo – it’s a labour of love for winemakers as the quantity that’s made from the grapes doesn’t work out for the effort.
It is Christmas in a glass, with flavours of almonds, orange and sherry. Great poured over Christmas cake, or trifle sponges in trifle or over vanilla ice cream.
- Jamie Cooks Italy, published by Penguin Random House, available now, Jamie Cooks Italy, Channel 4, Monday, 8pm.