There are two parts in the introduction of Rick Steves’s new book, Italy for Food Lovers, that nearly made me cry. The first is Steves opining on the whole point of travel, the thing he’s dedicated his life to for the past four decades. “Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity and helps us understand and appreciate other cultures,” he writes. “Rather than fear the diversity on this planet, celebrate it. Among your most prized souvenirs will be the strands of different cultures you choose to knit into your own character.”
The other is from his co-author, Fred Plotkin, on being a “pleasure activist.” This is the act, he describes, of using one’s senses, especially taste, without analyzing what is happening in that moment, so that we may more actively take in everything we experience. “It would be too pat to say that the fullest use of our senses is the secret to happiness,” he says. “But any behavior that can contribute to our becoming more fully human and insightful is to be prized. That, to me, is pleasure activism.”
I did not expect to be so moved by a travel guide, especially one spearheaded by a white man my parents’ age who describes himself as the “everyman” of travel. But then again, Rick Steves’s whole deal for the past four decades has been to convince Americans, through his guides, tours, and PBS show, that travel is both possible and necessary. Together these points articulated why travel, and specifically traveling to eat, has felt so important to me. It is not about mere consumption, whether of plates of food or a checklist of monuments, though that is what capitalism so often tries to reduce it to. It is about developing new instincts based on new experiences, challenging your perceptions of the world, and feeling yourself as a small part of a glorious whole.
It’s also, of course, about eating the best cheese or pesto or tortellini in brodo you’ve ever had in your life. There is a reason Steves’s first travel guide to focus on food takes place in Italy. Where else can one so easily devote their life to food? Over 450 pages, Steves and Plotkin expound the ins and outs of the cuisines of Italy. There are quick vocabulary lessons in pasta sauces, explanations of produce seasons and wine trails, and a guide to where to go and what to eat across the country, broken down into 20 different regions. “It’s a dangerous thing to page through this book,” says Steves, “because you get really hungry and you want figure out a way to get to Italy as soon as possible.”
Over the decades Steves has been in the game, he has watched as food has become a more important consideration for many travelers. And as someone who says he was happy eating his college dorm food long after he graduated, he admits one of the greatest things travel can do is expand one’s palate. We spoke to Steves about writing a food-focused guide, how travel priorities have changed, and how a good meal is as important an experience as seeing the Sistine Chapel.
Eater: It seems more that people are making food a real priority when they travel. Has that changed the way you structure your guides and trips?
Rick Steves: I wrote my first book in 1980, and I’ve been writing books ever since. In the old days, my best-selling book was The Best of Europe. The best-selling rail pass was the Eurail pass. Now relatively few people buy The Best of Europe book and relatively few people buy the Eurail pass, they buy the France rail pass or the Britain rail pass or the Spain and Portugal pass. So as we’ve become better-traveled and sophisticated in our travel planning, we go with more focus.
Thoughtful travelers have a list of experiences they want to have. I sell my tours not by how many things you can check off on your bucket list, but how many experiences are you going to help people have? And a big part of the experience for so many of us is eating well. Over 40 years, I think my tour members have taught me a lot about the appreciation of good food and wine in my travels. And I was a little late to the table, but now I’m as enthusiastic as anybody.
Am I the kind of traveler that would travel to another city just for a particular restaurant? No. Fred [Plotkin] would. But when I am in a town anywhere in Italy, I really realize that the stakes are high as far as my overall experience goes according to what restaurant I choose to eat at tonight. And more and more, me and my everyman approach to things will, say, make a reservation in advance for a good restaurant because if it’s a good restaurant, it’s a good chance you can’t get in it without a reservation. Treat it like going to the Uffizi Gallery, or the Vatican Museum. Part of the reason you’re going to this city is to have a great meal.
Ten, 15 years ago, I don’t really think they had many food tours, but now every city has a food tour, and that’s because if there’s a need with capitalism, somebody will fill it. And I just love giving somebody a hundred bucks, and then they take four hours to show me and a handful of other American tourists a bunch of little artisan shops where they serve wonderful, wonderful little slices of that local cuisine. It’s a mobile lunch, it’s an education, it’s entertaining. I just think it’s a great experience.
You mention in the introduction that Italy for Food Lovers is a reincarnation of Fred Plotkin’s Italy for the Gourmet Traveler from 1996. Do you remember reading that book for the first time?
I interviewed Fred about that book on my radio show and I was inspired. I just thought, “Ah, this book has got to get out to more people.” Fred and I both love Italy, and I thought we could merge our philosophies about eating your way through Italy, and it could be a real practical joy for travelers going to Italy for whom the stakes are high. You go to Italy for your first time, you don’t speak Italian — it’s a challenge to not be overwhelmed by the cuisine and culture. You should celebrate it and get out of your comfort zone. And that’s what Fred and I both wanted to help people do.
What makes yours and Fred’s philosophies about eating different?
For Fred, a great way to understand Italian culture is at the dinner table. In the same way, I’m really enthusiastic about understanding Italian culture through the museums, and the galleries, and the architecture, the history. There’s many ways to get into a culture, and Fred knows how to do it from a cuisine point of view.
I love to eat in Italy, but I don’t speak the language, and I’m sort of an everyman generalist. And I went back to the dorm for several years after I graduated from college just to get a good meal — I’m pretty simple that way. After spending so much time in Italy, I’m realizing it really behooves the traveler to be thoughtful about their approach to Italian food.
I’ve got a hundred people that work with me here in Seattle at Rick Steves’ Europe. We’ve got experience with taking Americans around Europe, we take 30,000 people a year on 1,200 different tours around Europe. Our most popular destination is Italy. My best-selling guidebook is the Italy book. And so Fred knows all about the food and the wine, and we know what are the frustrations and the challenges of travelers, and where are they going to go, and what are the practical and realistic pitfalls and opportunities that await them.
What did you learn about Italy and Italian food through writing this? Has it changed the way you’re going to travel in Italy?
I’ve always been charmed by what I call a good marriage of flavors. And Fred would go, “Oh yeah, that’s abbinamento.” So he knows there’s a word, abbinamento, for matching flavors and textures. And that’s why the traveler who doesn’t know the word abbinamento does know that cantaloupe with a thin slice of salty prosciutto around it is an amazing little dish.
I always like to say a good traveler can go to a good restaurant and look at the menu and know where they are and what month it is by what’s being served. They will eat the local specialties and they will eat them in season. That is so fundamental, that tip right there, and that will be a big benefit to you if you’re traveling anywhere in Italy. Too many Americans, they go to Italy and they’re hell-bent on porcini mushrooms. You can’t have good porcini mushrooms out of season. That’s something I’ve appreciated and I’ve been teaching for years. But Fred knows exactly where and how that shows itself. So that’s the great thing.
Italians are very famously opinionated about their food and where it comes from, and I’m curious if in researching this you ran into anyone disagreeing with how you’re classifying Italian food?
All over Europe there are fine points about culture. I mean, if you go to a Belgian bar and you order a particular beer, if they don’t have the proper glass for that beer, they’ll apologetically come back to you and say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have the proper glass. Would you still like that beer in this glass?” And I would say, “Come on, get over it. Just put it in the glass, I want to drink it.”
Most of our travelers, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the time, and they don’t have the language skills that Fred has, but we want to be practical and help our travelers know the pitfalls and the opportunities. As far as eating the wrong pasta in the wrong region or the wrong way, Fred would be more inclined to say, “What is the right way rather than the wrong way?” If you want to have red wine with your fish, it’s kind of up to you. You’re not going to go to jail for it. But I think Fred would say, “Traditionally in Sicily, they have their arancini this way, and in Naples, they have their pizza that way.” And that’s just fun to know because I pride myself in being a cultural chameleon. I cross borders whether they are national or regional with celebrations. As soon as I get into another region, I’m in Umbria, now, this is wild boar country. I’m in Liguria, this is pesto country. I’m in Tuscany, this is Chianina beef country. It doesn’t mean the beef’s not good in the next county, but it’s just part of the culture.
Are you planning to give the food treatment to any other country?
No. So many things that I do are depending on meeting the person I want to collaborate with. I’ve got a Turkey tour program because I met the most amazing guide in Turkey whose mission was the same as mine, to equip and inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando. I was not a big enthusiast about France for years, and I met a great traveler and a good friend of mine now, Steve Smith, and he was my co-author for all things French. I can handle my own in Italy because I’ve loved it and know it quite well for my needs as a travel writer and a tour guide, but I wouldn’t have had the balls to write a cuisine book about Italy had I not met Fred Plotkin. Your wheels start spinning and you just think, “Fred, let’s get our brains together here and let’s write the ultimate guide to help travelers, intermediate eaters, pleasure activists.”
I loved that phrase, “pleasure activist.”
I’m an intermediate eater, and Fred’s a pleasure activist, and together we wrote Italy for Food Lovers. Would I do the same thing for another country? Conceivably I would do one for France, but I would need to meet the Fred Plotkin of French cuisine. It’s just been such a delight to take his information and weave it into our very practical and fun-loving and down-to-earth approach to traveling in Italy, and to know that they’re going to eat better thanks to the hard work that Fred and I and my staff did for this book.
In all your research in Italy, what was your favorite thing that you’ve ever eaten there?
When I’m researching, it’s just get out of my way. I’m just like a tornado going through town ‘cause I got to check all the information. And there’s this prime time for researching restaurants because you’ve got to see them when they’re full. If you go at 7:30, a restaurant may be full of tourists, but if you go at 9:30, it’s going to be full of locals. That’s where you get the real energy.
And then just when I think things are shutting down and my work is done, I get on the phone and I call back the restaurant I was so intrigued by that I visited that evening and I say, “Can you serve me just a quick dinner? Just bring me whatever you want me to eat.” And they know what I’m doing in my work, and they know I want a sampling of all the good stuff, and what’s seasonal and what’s local, and what the chef wants me to have. And I sit down, my work’s done, and I just enjoy whatever the chef brings me. For me, that is really a delight. Let the chef bring you whatever he or she would like you to eat, and then be that cultural chameleon. Get out of your comfort zone, wash it down with some great wine, and just create a memory that you will savor for the rest of your life.