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Guides for travelling and eating in Italy (Was Fodor's or Frommer's)

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Guides for travelling and eating in Italy (Was Fodor's or Frommer's)

Octavian | Apr 24, 2002 04:41 PM

Someone said Italy and Austria and asked "Fodor’s or Frommer’s?" I say forget them both unless you want something on the superficial, impersonal and on the shallow side. I have spent quite a bit of time investigating this issue and providing advice, especially for trips in Italy. The advice can be quite extensive, so I will give you a very short summary. Above all, the most important thing is you and your traveling party: what are your interests, your expectations, how many trips have you taken in that part of the world, your comfort zone including fitness, your adventurousness, the amount of work you are willing to put in preparing the trip, your language skills, your transportation within Italy and lodging plans (bike, car, train), and a few more things like that. Next you must realize that no one guide is best. Regardless of your own situation you’d still have to consult two or more guides, and probably a lot more, unless of course you decide to rely on professional help. Then you should use some guides to plan the trip and others to take with you.
Let’s take a quick look at the guide situation. 1. Michelin is best for selecting an itinerary since they are the only ones that make clear value judgments about what is worth seeing and the comparative interest of all sites. I found their judgment to be remarkably accurate in many countries, and Michelin is particularly good for Italy and Austria. (In general their star system does break down in certain type of situations, especially urban areas, but it pretty good in these two countries.) You have to add some fudge factor that would adapt it to your interests. On the down side they are a little stuffy and impersonal and other guides best their practical information. 2. Rick Stevens has also a pretty sound judgment and can be used to plan, but is of limited value if you have other interests and do not want to follow him step by step. 3. Blue Guide is probably best for historical background and description. 4. Knopf and DK have nicer graphics and while in general less comprehensive than the Blue Guide, they do offer on occasion more in depth treatments. I especially recommend their city guides, Rome for example. 5. The Cadogan series has no better guides than the ones written on various regions of Northern Italy. They are a labor of love, full of insight, information, and reasonably up to date information. 6. Depending on the country I often use Lonely Planet or Rough Guide for more practical information. 7. Also to consider are the guides put out by the Italian Auto Club and available in English. There are city and regional guides though I have not seen the whole country guide that is available in Italian and is an abridgment of the various regional and city guides. I would rank these quite highly; on the plus side they are authoritative, they do provide some way to sort the best stuff from the lesser things and they do provide quite a bit of historical and artistic background without overwhelming those less inclined towards such things. They are worth the money just for the excellent maps that are at the back: clear, accurate, easy to read. On the down side, they can be somewhat impersonal and were written primarily with the Italian traveler in mind, which of course for some that would be a plus. 8. Then there are the traveling companions, the specialized guides to say, recreation in a national parks, bicycling in Tuscany, Villas in Veneto, Wine guides, or guides to the fashion and artisanal workshops, or to visiting industrial places like the Ferarri car factory, or who knows, disco, night life in Italy, or guides to farms, especially popular are olive oil farms and wineries (agritourism has become big in Italy). Obviously, you have met the plethora of guides and that’s why you asked for help. 9. However, if you had a little time the web can provide information that is often vastly superior to any printed guide especially with respect to all sorts of practical tourist information. Furthermore, this is very convenient because the browser will translate for you and you could actually get on the web while you are in Italy. This beats most everything with the exception of the star system for Michelin; the downside is of course that it is time consuming, but there is nothing like peeking into you next hotel room and seeing the view from your window, all from 3,000 miles away. As to the printed information, it is much more stale than the web. Obviously Saint Peter will not have changed much in the last centuries, but the hours of operation have. Things can change very fast, so please let me share a story with you. Because I did not trust the guides and brochures to provide the correct hours of a historical site in Rome (Ara Pacis, Augustus’ altar) I called the number provided in the guide and someone answered and told me the altar was open from 10 to 4. What she had failed to mention and I only found out when I went to there, was that they had closed for renovation for six weeks, but the hours of operation would have been correct if the musem had been in operation.

On with the food, after all we are here on the chowhound food network. First I would learn as much as I could about Italian food. I mean this at all levels of sophistication. If this is your first trip and you do not know much about Italian food (and I mean Italian, not the stuff served here) you cannot expect Italian waiters to become tutors in broken English. Restaurants have much more extensive menus than in U. S. so they cannot explain their menus, at most one to three dishes. Also asking the equivalent of "What is French fries?" "What is a hamburger?" or asking to put pineapple or Tai chicken on a pizza will have your waiter roll his eyes. I do remember taking some relatives from Midwest to a nice restaurant, some years back when Italian food was less popular than it is now. The menu had at least two hundred entries and all of it was fascinating to them but after explaining dishes for an hour and only making it through less than half of the menu, I gave up. They had already forgot what I had told them and I had to repeat myself. I just asked them to let me order for them.
Plotkin is your best source for food information in English gathered in one volume and you should buy it. However, despite being a large and impressive volume it is still reads like a personal odyssey so it is spotty and under-researched compared to alternative source of information available in Italian (and remember if it’s on the web it is also in English) and in English but scattered around. It’s not his fault and he does know a lot of things but the Italian food scene is just too big for one person and one volume. While it has a good description of different regional differences Plotkin will only minimally help you to decipher the menus in an Italian restaurant or figure out which of the 40 flavors of ice cream you are about to try and frankly we tend to part company in his enthusiasm for some of his restaurants. I strongly recommend that you buy the Italian and German volume in a series called Menu-Master which can be purchased from Amazon.com right here through the home page of this site. Eventually you will wean yourself from them, but I still take them with me to save time from explaining food to my fellow travelers and just in case my memory draws a blank.
When it comes to restaurants I would forget not only about Plotkin, any of the guides, including city guides and all the other restaurant books available in the US. They are just simply not up to it. I would also forget about word of mouth on this side of the Atlantic and web chat opinions (sorry chowhounds, obviously this does not include people with a track record) or at best I would use them as a supplementary source of insight. I recommend two things, one of which is too complicated to discuss here, namely developing a sense of what a restaurant is all about from its menu, ambiance, staff and location. I firmly believe that you can judge a restaurant by its covers. This obviously requires some level of knowledge and sophistication so we’ll skip it here but it works in many different settings (perhaps I’ll put together my notes into an article and publish it some place some other time). And now, the drums roll please. The best way to select restaurants is also one of the simplest ways. When you get to Italy buy yourself the ristoranti d’Italia 2002 which collects reviews by the critics of Gambero Rosso Magazine and has a value index, a rating guide that breaks down into cucina (food) cantina (wine) ambiente, servizio, and bonus. It is very useful even if you do not know any Italian. The numbers are Arabic, just the same as over here, the value index is a pictogram, and the recommended dishes are in Italian just as you will find them on the menu. It does help if you read Italian but this message is getting too long for me to try help non Italian speakers on how to decipher that information right now. Read it and weep that we do not have something like this in United States: 3000 restaurants from all over Italy, with top-notch evaluations and expert opinions, with maps on how to get there. Almost there I should say; it took me half a day to find a pizzeria outside Naples, but I was most of the time within half a kilometer. (Actually the maps in the back are really good, it’s the ones locating the restaurants that are a little shaky.) You should supplement this guide with that produced by L’Esspresso, a weekly magazine, though if you do not know Italian it will be less useful since it relies more on Italian descriptions and an overall score. "What about the red Michelin guide?" you say. I personally find the Michelin rating guide and palate to be less useful outside France. I imagine because I object to having a French oriented perspective to say, Italian or Spanish food. I also value the international, post-modern style of cooking less than the Michelin. I prefer innovation within traditional forms. Having said that, many of the restaurants that are in the Red Michelin are also in the other guides but their rating system seems more simplistic and rudimentary than Gambero Rosso’s so it provides less information.

I think I just run out of time. Austria will have to wait another day. Anyhow, Wiener Schnitzel is just another name for Cotolette alla Milanese, eat it in Milano. Yes, I know there is stuff to do in Vienna, do not skip it. By the way did I mention that fabulous meal I had in Milano?

Have fun and if you have any more questionsI'll try to make some time

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