L’Espresso: Italy’s answer to the Michelin Guide

L’Espresso: Italy’s answer to the Michelin Guide

by Tom Riby 18 October 2016

Tom Riby sits down with food critic Paolo Vizzari to learn more about the most respected restaurant guide in Italy to discover what sets it apart, where Italian cuisine is heading and the best places to experience Italian food in the country.

Tom worked as the producer for Great Italian Chefs.

Tom worked as the producer for Great Italian Chefs. Originally from the UK, he has always been a part of Britain's culinary scene, working with chefs such as Robert Thompson and Gordon Ramsay, Tom now lives in Tuscany, Italy with his family. His obsession with Italy’s culture combined with a shared passion for food is his dream now realised.

With the thousands of trattorie, restaurants and markets scattered throughout Italy, it can be hard to pick a place to eat. In a country famed for its cuisine, the last thing you want is to sit down and receive sub-par food. Luckily, there are plenty of guides all highlighting the true culinary gems of Italy, with the Michelin Guide being the one tourists turn to the most. But within Italy, it’s weekly news magazine L’Espresso that commands the most authority, with its annual restaurant guide that’s been running since 1978.

Paolo Vizzari is now one of L’Espresso’s food critics that travels the length and breadth of Italy to seek out the country’s best places to eat. It was his father, Enzo – the man who famously discovered Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana when his car broke down nearby – who started the guide and now Paolo continues his work. But with the Michelin Guide such an established figure in the culinary world, what sets L’Espresso apart?

‘What makes us different is our focus on cuisine nouvelle while also paying homage to the great haute cuisine,’ explains Paolo. ‘The grading is based on a twenty-point system based purely on the food; wine and service are not judged but noted. Up to three hats are also awarded to restaurants of culinary excellence.’

L’Espresso critics also focus specifically on the dishes they’re served in a restaurant, rather than the whole experience.‘It’s difficult to consider the atmosphere, the design, even the service objectively,’ says Paolo. ‘I may prefer the service to be friendly or a table by a window with sunlight but this cannot determine whether a chef is good or not. If for example a chef is cooking traditional food, we will look at this with a very critical eye – it has to be the greatest version of a traditional dish. On the other hand, for a chef cooking avant garde, we will consider everything; the textures, the flavours and the ability to communicate their identity.’

Paolo (pictured second from left) spends his life visiting Italy's best restaurants
As well as the restaurant guide, L'Espresso publishes a list of the best Italian wines too

Paolo grew up travelling from restaurant to restaurant with his father, loving every moment – something which has continued in his professional life today. ‘Working with chefs is a wonderful thing and travelling to experience the minds and flavours of each region interpreted by skilled craftsmen makes me appreciate my beautiful country,’ he says. ‘However, the role comes with a lot of responsibility; we are fair but also respectful. We have a role to play in the big changes currently happening in modern Italian cuisine.’

With all his experience of eating out, Paolo is one of the best people to ask about where to eat in Italy. While specific restaurants come and go, there are areas of the country that are home to a consistently excellent food scene. ‘I would say the two regions of Italy with the best food right now are Piedmont and Campania. Piedmont was where Italy began – diplomats and nobles used to reside near Turin and they would have the best chefs from France and Italy cooking there. When they were overthrown, the chefs were left jobless and had to open places that served the public. They were able to make the most of the local ingredients available to them and today the region has some of Italy’s greatest chefs such as Antonino Cannavacciuolo, Davide Scabin and the Costardi brothers.

‘In the south, Campania has the richest land to grow some of the worlds most incredible produce,’ adds Paolo. ‘Lemons, tomatoes and even the fish all have the highest levels of flavour, incredible sweetness and acidity which restaurants in Campania have access to. Chefs like Francesco Sposito, Gennaro Esposito and Marianna Vitale are all reaching new heights in their cooking.’

You can see passion and enthusiasm flow through Paolo as he talks about Italy’s contemporary food scene – he constantly likens the country’s chefs to famous artists. ‘Today the chefs are artists just like Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgio Vasari and Caravaggio; the depth of story and creative freedom is unrivalled,’ he says. ‘The Italian restaurant scene is beginning to understand but we have only just started. I predict that we will embrace our incredible resources and in doing so create a new Italian cuisine. It was Alain Ducasse who said ‘I fear the day the Italians realise what they have in front of them’, and I think he’s right.’