FOOD in Italy is very different from most Italian food in Hong Kong, where Spaghetti House and pizza topped with Thousand Island dressing masquerade as the real thing. This is stating the obvious but I didn't realise I would get an indication of just how vast the differences were, without even having to leave the airport. Arriving early morning from Hong Kong we decided to have coffee before venturing into Milan. Because it was so early, there was only one place open - a generic gift shop/cafe, horribly decorated with colourful glass tables and uncomfortable wrought iron seats. It was filled with Italian travellers who stood at the marble-topped coffee counter gulping down hits of caffeine. They seemed to take the quality of coffee for granted but for me the first sip of cappuccino was a revelation - a sublime concoction that was as thick, rich, creamy and satisfying as mousse. It got better from there. In eight days of travelling from Milan to Rome, we ate only one bad meal - gloopy spaghetti carbonara and penne arrabbiata at a touristy outdoor restaurant in Rome (the gelati and cannoli, though, were wonderful). Of course, this is to be expected when travelling with Italian chef Umberto Bombana from Toscana at The Ritz-Carlton, and when dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, as we occasionally did. But we also ate at unassuming places, where we were surprised by the care that went into the preparation. It would be unfair to put these small, not as famous restaurants in the same article as Michelin-starred restaurants, so you can read about luxury dining next Sunday. If Ristorante Peck in Milan (Via Victor Hugo 4, 20123 Milano, Tel: 02.876774) opened a branch in Hong Kong, it would do a roaring trade. Across the street from Peck (Via Spadari 9, 20123 Milano, Tel: 02.8023161, www.peck.it ), a three-storey food and wine emporium extraordinaire, the restaurant is cafeteria-style, with a long display of prepared foods, and counter seating in the back. The display held sandwiches, salads, hot dishes and desserts. We shared an extensive selection of dishes - cold octopus in lemon and parsley, veal with tuna sauce, rice salad with asparagus, ham and smoked cheese, buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and celery, cannellini beans with shrimp and braised fennel, and the first of many trippa stewed in a light tomato sauce. In Verona we walked the beautiful cobblestone streets and gaped at Juliet's balcony along with all the other tourists. Lunch was at the Antico Caffe Dante (37121 Verona, Piazza dei Signori, Tel: 045.8003593). It was sunny and warm, and we, like all the other customers, ignored the cool, dark interior and dined outside. We sampled a rustic carpaccio. It wasn't like the fancy version you get at most places - perfectly round, transparently thin slices laid flat on a plate. This was huge and hearty - lots of finely sliced beef on a mound of salad, with a flavourful dressing that contained chopped egg, garlic and parmesan cheese. Two types of pasta came next - maltagliati (rough shapes) with tomato and basil, and tortellini with parmesan cheese, ham and fried sage. The next course was rather tough beef, but the dish was notable for a wonderful Amarone sauce. It was unusual to find a Sicilian pizza place in Modena, but one reason we decided to eat at Il Patriarca (41100 Modena, Via Vignolese 1008, Tel: 39-059.360000) was that it was packed with locals. The restaurant is justifiably popular for its large wheels of thin-crusted pizzas, with a thin coating of tomato sauce, cheese and a long list of combinations for toppings. No Thousand Island dressing, though. Florence's Cantinette Antinori (Piazza Antinori 3, Firenze, Tel: 39-055.292234) was opened by the nearby Antinori winery as a way to showcase their famous wines, so of course, the wine list is excellent. The dishes are cooked to complement the wines, and we ate delicious warm lentils dressed lightly with a subtle curry flavour, fresh grilled porcini, porcini risotto, and another dish of trippa stewed in tomato sauce. The beautiful Agricola San Felice (53010 San Gusme, Siena, Tel: 0577-359087) is the picture-postcard version of what a vineyard in Tuscany should look like - tucked away among the rolling hills, olive trees and green fertile countryside. The winery, which makes what are known as Super Tuscans, to differentiate between the regular chianti, also has a hotel, guest houses and restaurant. The chef, Marco Zampieri, had worked in Tokyo for a year, and some of his dishes reflected the influences - one dish had tempura-coated vegetables, lamb was subtly flavoured with ginger. There were no Japanese ingredients in my wonderfully moist guinea fowl, but it was delicious nevertheless. He was the only chef who admitted to using outside influences - as he put it, it's 'Italian style with Japanese ingredients'. Dinner at La Tana del Pirata (Via Milano 17, Marina di Castagneto, Tel: 0565-744143) was perhaps our most surprising meal. Just from watching other diners, we knew we could reasonably expect good pizzas at Il Patriarca, and well-cooked regional dishes at Cantinette Antinori, but La Tana del Pirata had only two other groups of diners. It looked like a restaurant in an old bathhouse - it was on the beach, so the view was of plastic loungers for sunning, huge umbrellas, folded down for the night, and minuscule stalls for changing into swim gear. We became apprehensive about the quality of food when we received our salads of tasteless tomatoes. The menu listed mostly fish, with little marks to indicate what was fresh, along with pizzas and pastas. The wine list, though, had a selection which would be the envy of some Italian restaurants here - included were wines of the nearby - and justifiably famous - Sassicaia. The fritto misto was not the batter-fried cod and chips we were expecting. Laid out on greaseproof paper was a wonderful selection: fried sardines, rings of cuttlefish, tiny whole shrimps in shell, fried zucchini and tomato slices. The batter was ethereal, and, as we ate far more of the fish than we were hungry for, we toasted the cuisine of Italy with a fantastic bottle of Sassicaia 95.