One thing we learned in France and Italy traveling along the Mediterranean coast: if a dish includes “frutti di mare” or “les fruits de mer” (which I guess literally translates to “sea fruits;” a server in Italy adorably translated it that way the first time we asked, rather than the more correct-sounding “sea food”), order it. It will include delicious mussels and clams and squids and shrimps and other good things. We live by this rule now with one of us always ordering a “sea fruits” dish when available (see bonus tip about never, ever, ever ordering the same thing here), and we have never been let down. On the contrary, ordering “sea fruits” dishes has resulted in our favorite meals ever.
Bonus tip: Trust the waitstaff. If you can develop a basic rapport with them right away, ask what they recommend, or what they like to eat there, or what they’d choose between the things you have it narrowed down to. They’re pretty much always right.
A case study that proves both points:
We spent one night in the little hot springs town of Montecatini Terme when we were driving from Pisa to Florence. We found a restaurant that looked good, tablecloths but not too fancy, and a nice bar area. We asked the waitress for a recommendation. She said the best thing was the steamed frutti di mare with tagliani. Since it was about the same price as their house pizza, we went for it, and added an alarmingly low-priced lobster to round out the meal (she explained being so close to the sea made it inexpensive; and don’t worry, the lobster was smallish but very good).
What arrived at our table was one of the best dinners we had on our whole Europe trip, a truly unforgettable pasta dish with a light red sauce. The frutti de mer (mussels, clams, squid, octopus) are steamed as the dish is baked under a tortilla-like pastry crust. We had no idea what we were getting until our waitress rolled it out on a cart and started dishing it up, first cutting into the pastry and putting that on the plates, then adding the tagliani pasta, and then topping it with the “sea fruits.”
There were a couple of other tables of tourists of various nationalities in the restaurant. Those who’d already ordered looked jealously on. Those who hadn’t, well, we noticed several more carts of the tagliani with steamed frutti di mare coming out of the kitchen after that.
We stayed for dessert that night (though often in Italy we’d have our dessert at the nearest gelato stand), and if I remember right, we enjoyed a limoncello with it. A meal that good must have made us feel like splurging. We also stayed because there was a TV in the back, nearish to our table, that had on a Simpsons rerun over-dubbed in Italian, and we were enjoying dissecting the differences in the characters’ voices from their American counterparts (especially Mr. Burns).