Visit an Australian town of 15,000 people or so - you pick the town. What does it offer in the food stakes? Certainly hamburgers and fish and chips, probably a pizza joint, a Chinese restaurant certainly, Indian if you are lucky and maybe, just maybe some Thai food. The pubs might do "Aussie" meals - whatever they are.
Compare that to the place I visit in Italy. About 90 km south of Rome, near the coast, 15,000 people. The first thing that you notice is that there isn't a hamburger joint, they don't know what fish and chips are, there is no Chinese, no Indian, no Thai - it's simply Italian food or nothing. Boring? Not at all because there's an interesting little twist or two.
Firstly the evening meal is not the main meal of my day in Italy, that comes in the middle of the day. The picture above is the place I stay at, simple, clean, friendly and modestly priced - 45 euro a day for a double room and breakfast. The coffee at breakfast is quickly and expertly made with a decent coffee machine and the quality is superb. Try finding that in Australia.
The main town centre is a 5 minute walk and on my way there I pass three good, cheap, friendly restaurants where I can have half a litre of wine and a simple, healthy meal for 8 or 9 Euro. The first place - 45 seconds walk - an anti pasto bar with a wide variety of vegetable, bean, meat and sea food. You could make this your meal and I have, the bread is fresh and chewy. The "gourmet" pizzas are simple and filling. The pasta, meat and fish dishes are simple and quick. So three or four food groups a good glass of red and off I go into the darkness replete and with my wallet still full.
Further on in town I have choice - up-market dining in a place disconcertingly called "Happy Days" - not what you would expect from the name. Maybe the little place near the church where you get whatever is on the owner's agenda that night. Last time I was there I had a glorious house red and a beautiful braise with potatoes and broccoletti followed by dessert for 18 euro. Further still and I come to a tiny place that offers pizza by the slice - choose your slice, choose your wine and go and sit. Then as often as not the owner will pop out of the kitchen with a bowl and say "I just made this you might like some". Maybe it's a bean dish, maybe some pasta or maybe a risotto with seafood. You get no choice except to churlishly refuse and it's always good - I've never paid more than 9 Euro for dinner here and often as little as 6.
But the main course is really lunch. For this we drive, never more than 30 minutes, never in town, always in the countryside. That's the first thing you notice, in amongst the livestock and the market gardens will be a modest house with a sign suggesting food is on offer. Each little restaurant has it's own menu which is typical of that restaurant. One is known for its meats - dried and cured, porchetta - whatever. They form a mandatory first course along with some buffalina maybe and perhaps a simple braise of beans. Another has a wood fired grill in the restaurant and they cook fish and game meats, sausages and steak to absolute perfection as you watch. I remember one happy lunch at this place where I ate spaghetti with scampi followed by home made sausages with potato and glorious broccoletti braised with olive oil. We finished with dessert and a glass of grappa with our coffee. The food, the red wine, the grappa and the coffee? 20 euro each for a group of 12 of us - and it wasn't a set menu.
Each restaurant is individual and "does its own thing" yet each is quintessentially Italian. You couldn't be anywhere else. Why is it that Italy has such a culture when in Australia you have the alternative of starvation or death by hamburger in many towns of this size? Why is there such an absence of restaurants in the country in Australia? I can only think of George Biron's Sunnybrae restaurant in Victoria. Viva Italia.
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