Why Italy Does Not Need Michelin Stars

The best pickle I’ve had in Italy but is it worthy of a Michelin star? Signum.

Some of the worst meals I’ve had in Italy have been in fancy expensive Michelin star restaurants. Some people get super excited about Michelin stars and deem those restaurants better than others. I do not get it. The Michelin star system started out as a way to get the tires worn out. Italy does not need these fancy restaurants. Actually the Michelin star system has nothing to do with how fancy the restaurant is but solely the food, cooking, and constituency of those things. The general public seems to not know this. Michelin is not even all over the world yet (they say that they are taking is slowly). Michelin has not reached South America yet. Imagine that! There are restaurants in Lima that should have a star, but Michelin hasn’t gotten there yet. If consistently making good food was really the reason to give a place a star, then many more would have them.

Eggplant parmesan with anchovy from Mamma Santina, Salina. Not by a Michelin chef. But stellar nonetheless.

The food in Italy is already natural, local, and delicious. The various types of Italian cuisine (there are many) are based on local, simple, and delicious. Michelin seems to go for innovative, expensive, and small portions. Add to that how hard it is to get a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, and it is just not my idea of a good food experience. Some of the finest dishes I’ve tasted were not by a Michelin star chef.

One thing that many people like about small portions is that it allows them to try many things and it is a form of portion control. You can try that anyway in Italy. The portions of appetizers and first courses are not necessarily that huge. Or share with a friend. Most restaurants will even split the dish onto two plates.

Bao at the Michelin star chef’s place, Signum.

The last Michelin star restaurant experience underlined why Italy doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. One of the dishes “invented” was a bao, a steam Asian style bun. But it wasn’t as good as the authentic ones and I do not think it highlighted the ingredients. Then we had an appetite stimulant of pickles which were the most sour I have had in Italy. I can see how this was innovative for Italy where sour is not sour. One dish was a roasted escarole (half an escarole head). It cost 38 euro.

Caponata at Signum. One of the normal dishes there.

I guess my biggest peeve with these restaurants is that they are so pricey and pretentious. Most of the places on my list are not expensive, and not pretentious. Nothing makes food taste bad like attitude.

The current system where restaurants are listed in the Michelin guide is just like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The guide in Italy is Gambero Rosso. The Michelin guide is separate from a chef earning a star, of which there are 367 (318 have one star) in Italy. I am glad when a woman gets a star but I don’t think that makes the overall system better. The Michelin guide badge is a round red sticker that you can see on many restaurant doors alongside the ones for TripAdvisor.

I tend to use Google ratings because I like the democracy of the system. It relies on average eaters reviewing places and not a specialized team of experts who want to wear out your tires in France. In Italy, most restaurants make consistently good food. Or consistently bad. Try them for yourself.

One Week Tour of Bogota

A view of Bogota, city of eight million.
A view of Bogota, city of eight million.

I’ve had quite a few visitors recently and I’m expecting quite a few more, so I thought I’d try to get my “tour of Bogota” blog posting done before someone else asks me where they should take their visitors.

If you visit Bogota (for work perhaps) and only have one week here, this is my suggestion of what to do.

Try to visit most of the centrally located attractions after work. The old town of Bogota is called La Candelaria and in it are located the Gold Museum, the Botero Museum, Bolivar plaza, the president’s residence, and mount Montserrate (eat up there if you want). For dinner on the other nights, eat in Parque 93 (Mercado does Colombian food) and the Zona rosa (or Zona G, etc.). The part of the street around Cevicheria Central has several good restaurants including Di Luca and Agadon though they do not specialize in Colombian cuisine. A must try is Andres carne de res (or include the Chia location on Saturday’s outing if you want the loud and raucous experience), and cevicheria La Mar. Harry Sasson has interesting architecture (don’t be deceived by the dark exterior). Also, it’s hard to find but usually there’s a car parked in the jungle that constitutes their lawn. You may catch a glimpse of the politically powerful dining there. If you want to try the other Colombian chains, eat at Crepes and Waffles for lunch, Bogota Beer Company, and sip coffee (or “tinto” as it’s called here) at the coffee chains, Oma and Juan Valdez. Colombian food to try are arepas, empanadas, ajiaco, sancocho, criolla potatoes, obleas, and fresh lulo juice.

"La naturaleza" or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon.
“La naturaleza” or nature, near the Guatavita Lagoon. This is actually a view of the hydroelectric reservoir.

Then on Saturday, hire a car and driver (some are about $12/hour . Or you can use tour companies) and go out of Bogota to the Zipaquira town (salt cathedral fame) and go up to Guatavita Lagoon (source of the El Dorado legend). Be prepared that you can only hike to the lagoon with a tour and it takes two hours. Or visit the little town of San Francisco as you enjoy the back country lanes and the beauty of Colombia’s landscape.

On Sunday, get up early (like at 6 or 7) and go see Paloquemao market. Do breakfast/brunch (from 8-12) at Club Colombia, Avenida 82, No. 9-11 (unless you want the real deal at the market), then do Ciclovia (when the streets are closed so that people can exercise).  You can include a view of Bogota from the Colpatria Tower, Avenida Carrera 7, No. 24-89, (for the view from the 48th floor, and you only have to walk up two flights of stairs), the Calle 26 flea market, the San Alejo pulgas (stalls), Carrera 7, No. 24-70, (link in Spanish), the Macarena area (includes quirky cafes like the dog café, Azimus, Carrera 5, No. 26A-64, and La Juqueteria – the playhouse, Carrera 4), the old bull fighting ring, and National Museum (Museo Nacional), Carrera 7, No. 28-66. Then take a cab up to Usaquen to walk around the adorable streets and the Sunday market (some flea but mostly artisan). Eat at La Mar for dinner.

Colorful walls in Guasca.
Colorful walls in Guasca.

If you have a second weekend, then I’d suggest going to Cartagena (even if just for one day — or add a few days just to go there). If you have more time, then visit Medellin, Cali, Santa Marta, Letitia (for an Amazon tour).

Notes: Never let your credit card out of your sight. They will be swipe it at the table with a mobile unit. If asked “cuantas cuotas?” the answer is one (unless you want to do a layaway plan for your two dollar coffee). Use an app like Tappsi to get cabs. No cab ride should be more than 35,000 ($17). Ask to use “el metro” which is the meter. It doesn’t always count in currency, instead, it’s  a code with a corresponding amount on the taxi fare chart or on the meter. Lock the doors when you are in the cab. Also, remember that the altitude may take your breath away. Heed the need for oxygen and take it slow (like sitting in meetings) for the first day or so.

One last thing about visiting Bogota. It’s always 65 F and the sun will come out almost every day. So every day is a good day to visit. All year round (okay, it rained at 2:30 p.m. every day in October and November, but the sun came out in the morning!).

Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.
Rent a horse on the shores of the reservoir.