I’m less convinced now. Not after Sicily.
Hold your stones, foodies! I speak from bitter experience.
The trouble started at the airport, where the car rental guy suggested I wouldn’t find a feed along the autostrada at night. Fearful of starving in the wilds, I grabbed a pizza at a Palermo servo. It was thick and square and filled with enough boiling mozzarella to anaesthetise one’s mouth for dental surgery. Chewy isn’t the word – it was like eating a hot shoe with salami on top.
That was as good as it got. Next day in Noto, my beautiful hillside base of 20,000 souls, I thought I’d find a charming trattoria for a cheap, relaxed lunch. Naïf that I am! Sure, I did come across a cosy restaurant down a cobbled alleyway that offered cucina tipica Siciliana. Just one problem: Ristorante Meliora was closed until the evening.
Noto was deserted. A beggar woman came to me, making an eating gesture. At last, a Sicilian who was thinking about food! She’d probably been looking for a restaurant for years. About 150 of them by the looks of her. I wanted to cry. If she was still struggling after all this time, what hope did I have of getting a meal?
I’m used to swathes of southern Europe being closed on random weekdays, but this was too much. I couldn’t even find a place claiming to serve food on days when the owners did get out of bed.
Was a bowl of pasta, or, God forbid, a risotto so much to ask? This was Italy, wasn’t it?
At last a good samaritan led me to a sort of pie shop, which was dark and echoed. Its owner just stood there. It was rather like the shopkeeper sketch in Little Britain, but I managed to emerge with a few take-away arancini and something resembling a Cornish pasty, but filled with spinach and ricotta. It was viciously dry. Yes, another truth Italy’s culinary apologists don’t want me sharing: Italians are not good at pies.
Exhausted from my lunch quest and refusing to face another restaurant hunt, I went home and made do with a packet of chips and cold arancini for dinner.
The next day, I drove into the hills. I saw amazing things: hermitages in caves, spooky convents, towering viaducts. I explored a deserted for-sale house and found – not kidding – a skeleton on the driveway. And yet, I couldn’t find a ristorante for lunch. Not even a place that would sell me a small take-away sandwich. No wonder southern Europe was in recession; I had a wallet full of cash and couldn’t find anyone enterprising enough to take it.
Grumpily I went back into Noto, where I stumbled on a cafeteria-style place that looked pretty dubious. Behind the glass counter, however, I spotted something resembling tortellini; pre-cooked, slathered in red sauce and dumped in a bowl. Still, it was something I could point my finger at, and I was hungry. It reached my table at an indifferent temperature and had the texture of stale orange peel. Maccas could do pasta better.
That night’s gourmet Italian dinner at the B&B was French bread, Dutch cheese and Greek yoghurt. I know, right?
Then it was the weekend, and I hoped the local eating scene might burst into life. I thought Ristorante Meliora might be worth another try. But no. Closed. A suspicious local leaned out a window and yelled words to that effect, while looking at me like I was bonkers.
I pushed past a portly teenager in a bid to secure a pizza at a place labelled “pizzeria”, but all I found was a woman doing paperwork. She didn’t look up and I didn’t speak Italian. So I pushed back past the large lad (at least someone in Noto was well-fed), and it was another doomed night.
Italy had one more day to leave a good taste in the mouth. I gave nearby Siracusa a chance for Sunday lunch. And lo, I found an open trattoria with ease! Then they cooked me a tasteless, watery ragu and brought me a sizeable carafe of wine I didn’t want, for which they then tried to charge me. Foodie fail.
Look, Italian food is fine when it’s in a Jamie Oliver cookbook. But if you’re planning on going to the country itself, you might want to do a little more research than I did. Unless you’re planning on a weight-loss retreat, that is.