The cost of finding hidden gems – Part 3

by Brian Alex | March 24, 2023

What We Look For in a Restaurant – Part 2


The Cost of Doing Things Right

Just the other day, one of my favourite neighbourhood butchers, let’s call him Giuseppe, told me that he “had to” move his shop. Where? Away from the well-trafficked spot that he was renting, to a quieter and more out-of-the-way spot, about a half kilometer away. When I politely inquired as to the motive for such an odd and impromptu choice, he simply shrugged and replied “I was told that I had to”.

Funnily enough, the incident occurred after a “series of unfortunate events” had besieged Giuseppe’s butchery shop.

Weeks later, a similar but shinier butcher shop, with more pizazz than quality prosciutto, opened up in Giuseppe’s stead. New clients streamed in, attracted by the glitz and glamor, but honestly the quality is not the same. And, what happened to Giuseppe? Well, that’s perhaps fodder for another discussion, but suffice to say that there were forces pulling the strings behind the scenes. You know what I mean.


Where Corruption Confronts Quality

Here in Sicily, near Catania where I live, it’s estimated that approximately 86% of locally owned businesses are forced to pay “il pizzo”, or “protection money”… ahem, more like “extortion money”, to the local boss. On the other side of the island, near Palermo, they estimate that over 90% are forced to pay to keep the peace (and their place). Given what we discussed last time, how can anyone stay in business?

This is commonplace. And it leads us into our final thoughts about the challenges of finding hardworking Italians, dedicated to quality, and unwilling to sacrifice Nonna’s heirloom recipes, whether to thugs, or trends, or those undiscerning tourists.

Taxes are absurd here. There’s a nationwide energy crisis. Drought in the north. Joblessness in the south. War on the continent. Etc, etc, etc.

Still, there are those who are convinced that they’re called to deliver a quality product and experience to those who know where to find them. In other words, there’s hope, even in Sicily.


The TRUE Heroes of The Story

If it sounds like I’m making a big deal about those who stand up to thugs, protect the integrity of tradition, and manage to smile and be welcoming when tourists ask for parmesan cheese to put on their fish dish… Well, yeah, it is actually a big deal, and worthy of our undivided attention.

These folks are the true heroes of the story. And so, we’ve finally come to the moment of truth. How do we find these kinds of restaurateurs, discretely build them into our travel itineraries, and maintain rapport with the owners in order to ensure the exceptional experience of our clients? Painstaking and methodical intentionality.

When we travel, we’re always on the lookout for a certain profile. That profile might include certain things (local, family run, commitment to quality, locally sourced, etc.) and it could also exclude certain things (no gimmicky appeals to tourists, no food trays on display baking in the hot summer sun, and definitely no fixed price, all-you-can eat buffet (unless we’re in Trieste).

We walk in, sit down, dine, and if we like it we kick up a conversation in Italian with the owner to see what they’re looking for in a clientele. If there’s a match, then they get moved to our “in” list. We run some of our clients through there, listen to their experiences, tweak things where necessary, and we’ve got a partnership. No commissions, kickbacks, or favors. Like, ever.

What it does take is a certain level of discernment, a sizeable time investment, and of course a healthy appetite!


Experience Is A Great Teacher

What we’re after, however, are great experiences. For you.

Should a restaurant come up as sub-par (which only rarely happens), we investigate immediately, opening a dialogue with the owners to see what’s going on. Could be staff turnover, testing recipes and innovating, or just swamped with the deluge of tourism that’s hit Italy in the After Covid era. But, we stay on top of it, get to the bottom of it, and clarify things.

These folks are the real heroes, and it’s our job to seek them out. It’s not always a win, however. 30% of the time, the meal was “ok” but not a “wow” experience, the service was clumsy or sluggish, or the owner wasn’t partnership material. That’s ok, life moves on, and so will we.

And where will we stay in the next town, while looking for that dream-come-true experience? That’s what we’ll be talking about the next time around. Hope this has been helpful!
Stay tuned for more hidden gems coming your way soon.