A family takes on Italy one back alley at a time and discovers the joys of eating like a local in the food capital of the world.

On our second week in Italy, I ate raw pork. This was unintentional. We were in Lido di Camaiore, one of several western coastal towns located near the top of the boot. The setting was gorgeous, with sweeping white-sand beaches set against stunning green mountains. But it was compromised by some of the worst urban planning we’d seen—dozens of private bagnos, or beach resorts, pocked the area and blocked oceanfront access. The formaggio factor alone—these were hardly high-end developments—wiped out much of the charm. If the Santa Monica Pier and Coney Island had a child, they’d name it Lido di Camaiore.

We had come to the Italian Riviera after spending 10 days in the Tuscan countryside. There, we ate pici, or hand-rolled pasta, bistecca fiorentina and the succulent “Red Chicken” from Certaldo. We ate…well. But by the time we left, our bellies swollen with gluten, we wanted something different. We got it, with a twist, at La Madia, a small food shop in Lido di Camaiore.

At La Madia, all the food looked solid. I opted for a charcuterie plate. It emerged minutes later, a spectacular cornucopian pile of salami and cheeses. In that pile was a small mound of what appeared to be very fatty chopped steak. Tentatively, I smeared some on a piece of bread. Rich and complex, it was one of the most profoundly elegant tastes I’ve ever experienced.

Street food

This was salsiccia cruda, and to call it raw pork does it a double injustice. First, because it’s sublime. And second, because it’s actually “fresh salami,” meaning that it’s cured. (A bit. Somewhat.) But it confirmed for us what we had come to believe: that cibo di strada, or street food, could be every bit as impressive as Italy’s iconic dishes.

This was not our first encounter with salsiccia, although we failed to recognize it at the time. In Florence, we’d stopped by Il Santino, a small enoteca in the Santo Spirito neighbourhood. Sitting on two wobbly metal stools, over a glass or two of Tuscan red, we watched as the lone employee churned out a variety of plates armed with only a prosciutto slicer and a countertop broiler oven. It all looked superb, but one dish stood out.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to an open-faced sandwich that had just come out of the broiler.

Crostone salsiccia,” she said. “Do you want one?”

Splitting open a large dinner sausage—fresh salami, actually—our host squeezed the contents onto a large chunk of bread and then placed it under the broiler. After a few minutes, she topped it with several thick slices of pecorino and re-grilled it until the cheese had melted. Finally, shaved truffles were sprinkled on top. I took a bite.

“How do you like it?” she asked.

I searched for something clever to say in Italian. I failed miserably, but managed to cobble together some gibberish that included both dios and cristo.

Florence was chock full of discoveries, from small take-away tosteria specializing in rustic toasted sandwiches to the three All’antico Vinaio locations on Via dei Neri, where five euros gets you a massive panini stuffed with Gorgonzola, truffled honey and lardo toscano—a wonderfully unctuous cold meat made from, as you might have guessed, lard.

On the same block there was a queue forming outside Club de Gusto, a small room specializing in lampredotto—a tripe sandwich. We were debating whether to order one when a middle-aged man standing next to us interjected. “It is a specialty of Firenze,” he said. “You must eat it.” We ordered one to share and watched as a generous helping of meat, boiled an unappetizing grey, was scooped out of a cauldron and heaped onto a crusty bun, then topped with two sauces, one red and the other vivid green. It wasn’t much to look at.

My son took the first bite. “Dad, it’s amazing,” he said. I’d eaten tripe only once before and remembered it as chewy, tough and bland. This version was tender, full of flavour, and the interplay between the sauces—the salty salsa verde, made from parsley, garlic and anchovies, balanced the red sauce’s kick—took the whole thing up several notches. This was tripe? No. It was a revelation.

As was much about Florence’s street food, which, no matter how downscale, still maintained a sense of sophistication. But if Florence, as its name suggests, is a stately society matron, Naples, on the southwest coast, is Italy’s wayward teenage daughter, complete with tongue piercings. Even the graffiti mirrors the differences: in Florence, it’s constrained and tasteful, as if orchestrated by Banksy. The tagging in Naples is much more in your face, unapologetically bold.

This difference extends to food culture. Naples, of course, is known as the mecca of pizza. Rightly so: you can’t throw a rum-soaked baba, a classic bell-shaped Neapolitan dessert, without hitting a serious pizzeria. But there is much more to Napoli—a chaotic, sharp-edged city of approximately three million, where back streets no wider than a pedestrian skybridge are shared by people, motorcycles and cars—than marinara and Margherita.

This is confirmed by walking this bustling, working class city. Leaving our second-floor suite overlooking Galleria Umberto, an ornate late 19th-century shopping arcade, there are the standard early morning lineups at Sfogliatella Mary, a small shop specializing in sfogliatelle, a flaky, ricotta-filled pastry dusted with icing sugar. Turning north on Via Toledo, a broad avenue ostensibly meant for cars but usually jammed with people, we pass the busy Passione di Sofi, a classic friggatoria serving up fritto misto, a deep-fried medley of squid, anchovies and potato croquettes, jammed into a cuoppo, or paper cone—patrons dig in with long wooden skewers. On Via San Biagio dei Librai, an alley-narrow street full of shops and restaurants, is Taralleria Napoletana. It sells one thing only: tarallo, a sweet or savoury pretzel that comes in a mind-numbing array of flavours.

At Tandem Steak, a cozy wood-panelled spot close to the Universita metro stop (the playfully colourful subway station was designed by Canadian designer Karim Rashid), tradition is on the menu. The spot is best known as a scarpetteria—they serve pasta sauces, but without pasta. We order a bowl each. Within minutes they arrive, with a large basket of bread.

Hearty and filling, the ragù (meat sauce) easily stands on its own. But pasta, although apparently overkill, is actually the delivery system for sauce; at a scarpetteria, bread performs a similar function. Mimicking the family seated next to us, as we get to the bottom of our bowls we start tearing bread into smaller chunks and scooping ragù with it, making scarpetta—the “little shoe.” At the end of our meals, our bowls look as if they were freshly washed.

After four days in Naples, we’d consumed buckets of saturated fat, but shaving a decade or so off our life expectancy seemed a small price to pay. There was, however, one place left that we had to try: Antica Pizza Fritta da Zia Esterina Sorbillo, a name so pompous it ought to come with monogrammed cufflinks. On other days, we’d lingered outside before moving on, but pizza fritta—deep fried pizza—seemed so indulgently over the top that even our family’s most diehard glutton had elected to take a pass.

Today, though, curiosity gets the better of me.

street food

At lunch the lineup is long, even though it’s raining—a testament, surely. Jostling to see, we watch as the filling is placed atop rolled-out dough and then folded into a calzone-like shape before being immersed in boiling oil. Soon it emerges: a misshapen golden blob that looks vaguely like John Merrick’s head.

Standing on the street, we take a bite. Oh, my.

Doves flew. Verdi blared. Mona Lisa snorted. It was incredible: Escoffier meets Boyardee, the El Dorado of cibo di strada, a mash-up of all that was great and greasy condensed into a meal requiring two hands, an iron gut and a flagrant disregard for medical consequence. It was possibly the worst food choice I’ve ever made, and one of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten.

As Caesar himself would never put it: veni, vidi, mangia. We came, we saw, we ate. We survived.