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Where to Eat in Italy

May 31, 1987|CHRISTINA BAGLIVI | Baglivi is a Los Angeles free-lance writer .

ROME — A low-budget trip to Italy can still fill you with the Italian favorite pastime, eating. Unfortunately, a five-course meal for two in the average Italian ristorante can cost between $50 and $75.

A wonderful, inexpensive alternative to anyone traveling to Italy, regardless of budget, is the trattoria , a family-run establishment offering less elegant but delicious, home-cooked meals.

On our second night in Italy, my travel companion, Kevin, and I discovered that we could have a huge, multicourse dinner with plenty of wine in a trattoria for less than $25 for two. From then on, we hunted for trattorie in every Italian city we visited.

We stumbled upon Trattoria Za-Za's one afternoon while meandering through the Mercato Centrale, a collection of outdoor souvenir stands in the northern section of Florence.

When I saw the word trattoria, I reacted like Pavlov's dog. Within seconds I was reading Za-Za's menu posted outside. I eagerly compared prices and specialties as Kevin approached: 3,500 lira ($2.50) for pasta, 2,500 lira ($2) for salad, 4,000 ($3) for chicken.

Kevin peered inside to evaluate further: "Hey, it's pretty crowded. I think we found a good one." Listening to the language of the customers, we're convinced that for a trattoria to have exceptional food, the patrons have to be Italian. If we follow this rule, we're sure the locals will lead us to all the best places.

Less dated than other trattorie we'd discovered, Za-Za's has a distinct Bohemian flavor. Rows of Chianti bottles and huge bunches of garlic cloves decorate the elaborate deli counter. The dining room contains long wooden picnic tables, and on the darkly paneled walls are photographs of celebrity diners. Of course, neither of us recognized the faces. I told Kevin deductively, "They're Italian movie stars."

X Marks Za-Za's Spot

Upon further investigation, Kevin noticed a picture above our table of the Los Angeles rock group X. He's intrigued that the music group not only chose to eat at Za-Za's but that they're recognized as celebrities.

A young waiter approached our table, singing along with Madonna's "Like a Virgin" as it softly played in the background. He slapped a torn piece of brown paper on our table and, directly on that, a chunk of thick crusty bread.

We interrupted his singing and tried asking about the picture of X. Either he couldn't understand our pidgin Italian or had no idea who X was.

We devoured our first course of spaghetti with pesto, a tangy sauce made with fresh basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese ($2.50).

Za-Za's has no private tables, so customers eat elbow to elbow with strangers. It took only moments to strike up a conversation with our nearest dinner companion. He watched us gobble up our next course--I had grilled chicken breast with lemon ($3) and Kevin had breaded veal cutlet ($4). We also had tossed green salad and sauteed eggplant ($2 each).

Our new friend was an actor from London. He told us he was performing on stage in Florence for the first time. Although I was interested in his story, I was more interested in the pasta dish he was eating, spaghetti with a hazelnut sauce.

The play is Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." My mouth was watering: "But what about the pasta?"

Answering, he slowly wiped his plate with a piece of bread and said, "It was absolutely delicious."

Za-Za's is in the Piazza Mercato Centrale. Telephone 215411.

Game of Finding Food

Trattoria -hunting quickly turned into a game. With the success of Za-Za's under our belt, we were eager to discover more out-of-the-way treasures. A day of sightseeing didn't go by when we didn't wander down quiet side streets searching for the perfect ma-and-pa restaurant.

We had indeed become pros in finding a bright awning or neon sign with the flowing word trattoria , but arriving in Venice, our talent for discovering low-cost dining was put to a real test.

The exceptional beauty of Venice equals its exceptionally high price tag. Food costs in Venice are the highest of any city in Italy. A modest lunch can cost more than $50 in Harry's Bar.

Deciding not to take a defeatist attitude, we hit the intricate back streets and canals with great gusto and a detailed map. On our first afternoon we became lost in a residential neighborhood directly north of San Marco Square. The alleys were alive with housewives crowding tiny meat markets, elbowing their way toward the front counters.

Others were attracted by vendors shouting attention to their fruit stands, but we ignored their invitations and stopped in every pastry shop to sample the homemade apple torte, cream-filled pastries, butter cookies or crumb cakes.

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