Having recently returned to Italy from visits in the USA, I’ve been thinking about eating when I travel. On the airplane, this is tough. Meals on a train or while driving on the highway also can be difficult.
Airplane food is notoriously bad (think dry chicken and mushy pasta) but there are ways to avoid it. Many people bring home-cooked meals in containers, which is fantastic, but my lazy go-to mode is to reserve a vegetarian meal from the airline when booking a seat. This usually means lentils or chickpeas with rice, vegetables, fruit, cheese and some bread. There’s orange juice, water and, if you wish, a free glass of wine on European airlines to get some sleep during the long haul. It’s good enough to get you where you’re going but on domestic flights in the US everything but pretzels, costs.
One thing I’ve noticed is that airports are waking up to the fact that travellers waiting for a flight want something good to eat and drink. Kiosks with smoked salmon and fresh salads exist at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and bistrots with hot, healthy meals can be found at Amsterdam’s Schiphol. I remember having a nice pad thai at the airport in Bangkok on a layover and some decent Cantonese cuisine while waiting for a flight in Hong Kong.
On the train in Italy it’s more difficult because in economy class there is only a cart that is pushed through periodically with crackers, cookies and drinks or a cafe that sells sandwiches and slices of cake, coffee, cappuccino, etc. But if you want a full-on meal go to the dining car that offers cooked dishes on both Italo and Trenitalia companies with the possibility of fresh pasta or an entree plus special meals for children and vegetarians. In my naturally frugal way, what I do on my way to Florence, Naples or Venice by train is to stop at a market in the Rome Termini station before boarding and buy freshly baked bread, cheese and cured meats for a sandwich then get some seasonal fruit and a bottle of water. Not haute cuisine but it will get me to where I’m going without starving. Once at my destination, I head to my favorite restaurants for a full-on meal like at Sergio Grossi in Florence, Osteria della Mattonella in Naples and in Venice, Osteria Ai 4 Feri, which is just across the bridge from the magnificent Academia and Peggy Guggenhiem museums.
Driving my Fiat Punto out of town, I eventually need to stop for some sort of snack. Fortunately on Italy’s highways (unlike the US where the truck stops serve only Arby’s, McDonalds, etc.) there are gas stations with rest stops that offer an Italian version of passable fast food called Autogrill which lets you fill up on benzina while grabbing a decent sandwich or croissant and coffee before getting back on the road. The bread and pastries are freshly baked, the meats and cheeses are of good quality, the coffee is Italian so a nice caffeine kick is just right when you’re behind the wheel on the autostrada. There are some Autogrill, especially in northern Italy, where you can get a proper meal that includes pasta, entrees, veggies and dessert. Plus, there are gianduja chocolates sold in the shopping aisles near the exit, perfect for that luscious sweetness that can help you keep your eyes on the road.
The reality is that we tend to travel around alot these days so finding places that can feed us food on the move and that we want to eat are super important. Fortunately in Italy this is still a priority. It’s one of the reasons I’m so happy to live in a country that values food, even in changing times. Viva l’Italia!
Elizabeth Janus is a passionate traveller, and makes it a point to peruse the farmer’s markets in every place she visits to get an immediate pulse of the city. For the last decade, she has been guiding discerning clients on food adventures at farmer’s markets, speciality shops and into her home for unique Italian meals to experience Italy as an Italian..