The Daily Diary of a Wandering Restaurateur
May 5 - Ai Quattro Venti

Did you ever notice how when you're traveling, your day revolves around meals? Well, at least mine seem to. Perhaps that is always true and I just don't notice it as much when the next meal is just a trip to the kitchen.

Ristorante Ai Quattro Venti is just across Piazza Grande from our hotel -- a short walk across ancient cobblestones. It is typical of most restaurants we have found here: small, perhaps 40 seats, and a family-run labor of love. Italian restaurateurs take your meal personally and watch closely as you try their food to be sure you are enjoying what they have prepared.

Restaurant options in Italy occur on several different levels. There is the caffe (they spell it with two "f"s) also called a bar or a caffeteria. This is sort of a snack bar that will offer coffee all day, pastries in the morning and beer and wine. In the warmer weather most will have tables outside. Usually you can find panini or pizza at lunchtime. Socially they are to the Italians what cafes are to the French ... or I suppose what Starbucks is becoming to Americans.

The next link on the food chain would probably be pizzerias. Menu-wise these are very similar to their US counterparts, offering pizza, beer, wine and often some pastas and salads. Traditionally, pizza was an evening meal in Italy since working around a wood-fired oven in the midday heat of summer was just too hot. Now you can get it about anytime you want. Pizza is almost always handmade although some bars offer a pre-prepared product that is an insult to the sensibilities!

Then come the osterias and trattorias -- typically small, family-run operations offering a moderately-priced menu of local dishes. These are informal places and usually offer the best food for the money. They offer the standard Italian meal format -- antipasti, primi, secondi and dolce (appetizer, pasta course, meat course, sweet or cheese course) -- although you are free to pick and choose what you want.

At the top of the chain are restaurants. This is where the chefs really get to play. The meals are more formal, more in the fine dining mode ... and more expensive. For us, they are a nice indulgence but too much to take on a daily basis.

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