The original Michelin Guide was published in France in 1900 as a tool for motorists, with instructions for changing flat tires and a list of petrol stations. Food did not become a focus until the Twenties, when the guide’s undercover inspectors were first hired. The now famous One to Three Star rating system was launched in 1931, the same year the current cover color of red was chosen – hence The Michelin Red Guide.
The book and rating system were designed solely for French cuisine, and it took more than a half century to reach Italy in 1956, though that first edition awarded no stars for Italian cuisine. That has changed considerably, and for 2017, despite being a small country with a relatively low population, Italy enjoys the third highest total of starred-restaurants on earth, around 340, behind only France and Japan. However, Italy has a much higher percentage of single-starred eateries than most of its gourmet peers – Japan has more than twice the percentage of its starred restaurants earning more than one, and while all of Italy is home to just eight eateries awarded the highest possible rating, Tokyo alone has twelve.
That being said, the vast majority of restaurants that earn a coveted spot in the Michelin guide get no stars at all, and unlike American 1-5 star systems, where one star is a failure, even a single Michelin star is a huge accomplishment, creating a “Michelin-starred chef.” For more than 85 years the food world’s most famous rating scale has been defined thusly:
1-Star: “A Very Good Restaurant in Its Category.”
2-Star: “Excellent Cooking, Worth a Detour.”
3-Star: “Exceptional Cuisine, Worth a Special Journey.”
So, it can be argued that Italy is the richest vacation spot for eating gourmet every day, with nearly three hundred 1-stars dotting its cities and countryside, from north to south and coast to coast. But for those seeking the very best, this small group represents Italy’s most essential “must-eats” spots.
Osteria Francescana, Modena: Sandwiched firmly between Florence and Tuscany to the south, Venice and the Veneto to the northeast, and Milan and the Lakes region to the north, Emilia Romagna is the culinary epicenter of Italian culture, home to such famous food towns as Parma, (Parmesan-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma), Bologna and Modena. The latter has long been equally well-known for its unrivalled balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico di Modena) and its exotic cars, home to both Ferrari and Maserati. But today Modena is best known to food lovers worldwide as the home of Massimo Bottura, Italy’s greatest chef. A meal at Bottura’s 3-star Osteria Francescana is the pinnacle of dining in Italy – if not the world. Considered the best Italian restaurant on earth, until this year it was also rated the single best restaurant of any kind by the influential World’s 50 and 100 Best Restaurants lists (formerly San Pellegrino 100 Best Restaurants) – it just slipped to number two.
This is the rare eatery that food lovers can feel completely justified in flying from anyplace to dine at; it’s that good. Bottura combines a touch of molecular gastronomy wizardry, though restrained compared to Alinea, Fat Duck or the late, great El Bulli, with a passionate homage to his local ingredients. The perfect example is his most famous dish, Parmigiano Reggiano Five Ways, officially known on the menu as “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different temperatures and textures.” Guests enjoy five different bite-sized and highly aged versions of the King of Cheeses, the youngest being an already mature 2-year-old. That one comes as a mini warm soufflé, followed by different preparations increasing in age by 6-10 months per bite: cheese as a warm sauce, a chilled foam, a paper-thin wafer and finally a 50-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano as whipped water, an alchemy that has to be tasted to understand why this was voted Italy’s dish of the decade.
Rome: The Eternal City has a whopping 21 stars, in the world’s top 20 urban totals, but just one 3-star, the long acclaimed La Pergola. This is an old school example of the highest rating, with impeccable service and preparation and niceties like a lengthy water menu and a post-post dessert sampling of fine chocolates served in the drawers of an elaborate lacquered jewelry box. Longtime Chef Heinz Beck has helmed the city’s always top-rated eatery for more than 20 years and is a legend for his fusion of Italian cuisine with that of its Mediterranean neighbors, featuring a lot of delicate seafood and distinctive flavors of the region such as wild fennel, white asparagus and the signature ingredient of Roman cuisine, artichokes. The full presentation is 10-course tasting menu.
Among Rome’s many 1-star options, the most dramatic is Imago, on the top floor of the Hotel Hassler, which in turn is perched atop the Spanish Steps. This unique vantage point affords diners a view to rival the quality of the cuisine, among the best anywhere, overlooking the monuments of the ancient city and clear across to St. Peters and the Vatican. Arrive before sunset and savor it with a selection from the tableside champagne cart before digging into the tasting menu. The delicate and elaborate choices change repeatedly with new seasonal ingredients, and like an edible museum, Imago showcases the history of Italian cuisine through specific regional specialties of the entire country.
Tuscany & Florence: Like Rome, Florence, the gateway to Tuscany, has just one 3-star but it is a great one, helmed by a legendary industry trendsetter and Italy’s most renowned female chef, Annie Feolde – who is French. Giorgio Pinchiorri is said to have earned his success due to a sixth sense for customer cravings, and in the Seventies, he decided it would be a good idea to start opening prized bottles and vintages of collectible wines and pour them by the glass – something unheard of at the time (and still pretty rare). His life partner, a self-taught cook who married her French traditions with the classic Tuscan tastes of her new homeland, started preparing hors oeuvres to accompany the wine. Four decades later, the couple operate the 3-star and Relais Gourmand Enoteca Pinchiorri, where wine, cuisine and the finest service are all kept on equal footing and the business plan has long been to treat each guest like visiting royalty.
The 2-star Bracali has been a fast rising culinary star in its homeland and is now considered the finest eatery in the Tuscan countryside, located in tiny Ghirlanda, halfway between Sienna and the coast in the western part of the region. The namesake creation of siblings Francesco and Luca Bracali, it draws patrons from all over the nation for its modern twists on traditional Italian dishes and ingredients, like combining lardo, the rustic Tuscan spread of prok fat, with eel. The restaurant is small, intimate and elegant, and wows with a lengthy tasting menu.
Il Falconiere in Cortona – now legendary as the town where the bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun was set – is the best 1-star in Italy that is also an acclaimed cooking school, wine-centric spa and Relais & Chateaux member. Guests can learn to make regional specialties, like pici, a hand rolled thick rustic version of spaghetti, prepare their full meal, then go change and decamp to the starred eatery where their own work is served to them by the pro staff along with fine wines. There are few such experiences available, but you can also let them do it all for you, and enjoy a deep regional immersion via tasting menu into the most classic Tuscan specialties such as Chianina beef, veal liver with an apple and onion reduction, and saffron kissed ossobuco.
Naples & Amalfi Coast: In the rest of the world, Naples’ most famous contribution to the food canon is pizza, but for a special night out the locals all know the top choice has been Don Alfonso 1890, named for the year it opened. The longtime 2-star fine dining spot is operated by Chef Ernesto Iaccarino, the current generation of one of Italy’s first families of food, which has run the place for well over a century. This has one of the best growing climates in Italy, and Don Alfonso was years ahead of the now popular treed of sourcing from its own vast chef’s gardens – nearly 20 acres worth – and even grows its own lemons and presses its own extra virgin olive oil, used emphatically throughout the menu. The wine cellar holds close to 30,000 bottles, and the spot even has its own medieval cheese aging cave.
Sicily: By day the UNESCO listed Baroque town of Ragusa is a tourist magnet, and by night it is home to the island’s two finest restaurants, a pair of 2-stars. Sicily has some of the most regionally unique flavors in Italy, and Locanda Don Serafino, a longtime gem, celebrates that in both its cuisine and exceptional wine list. Cheese ravioli is hardly a novelty in Italy, but few other places stuff it with D.O.P. Ragusano cheese – named for the small city, while Sicily’s justly famous Bronte pistachios find their well-paired way into everything, including the rabbit. In terms of charm, it doesn’t hurt that part of the restaurant is set within a natural cave.
Duomo, named for the town’s 1738 cathedral, the Duomo di San Giorgio, which towers above it, also practices a deep devotion to Sicilian ingredients but with a starker, artistic minimalism. Arguably Sicily’s most famed chef, Ciccio Sultano tells the story of his native region through his selection of the finest seasonally available local ingredients, like salt cod brushed with saffron sauce, bluefish lasagna, lamb crusted with crushed pistachio, or “Semi-wild black pork from the Nebrodi mountains.”