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FLORENCE and TUSCANY REPORT (LONG)

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FLORENCE and TUSCANY REPORT (LONG)

Samovar | Mar 28, 2003 03:30 PM

We’re just back from 9 days in Florence and Tuscany, having tried many of the suggestions from this board. I hope others will, in turn, find our experiences helpful.

Before we get to the food, a few words about booking and accommodations.

We booked the trip through an Internet discount agency that we used for the first time, http://www.go-today.com, and were very pleased with the results. They offer a variety of customizable (choice of duration, dates, accommodations) airfare/accommodation/car rental packages to various European destinations. A good value (airfare Boston-Florence, 8 nights accommodation and 5 days all-inclusive rental car for $1039/person). It seems clear that they actually have checked out the accommodations they offer, and in general everything went like clockwork. We spent three nights at the Hotel “Paris” in Florence. It’s a 3-star hotel and the room wasn’t great, but it was clean, adequately comfortable, and the bathrooms had clearly been remodeled very recently (new fixtures, etc.). Located 2 blocks from the Duomo, it had an extensive breakfast buffet in a beautiful hall with frescoed vaulted ceilings and made-to-order expresso/cappuccino included. We then spent 5 nights at a place called Villa La Palagina (http://www.palagina.it), about 20 miles south of Florence and about 1/3 of the way up the road from Figline Valdarno (which is just off the A11 superstrada at the Incisa exit) to Greve-in-Chianti. It is a totally renovated (only open since 10/02, we think) 16th Century villa set on a hillside in beautiful surroundings. It aspires to be elegant, and suffers only from the lack of a good hotel consultant to fix small details such as irrational placement of furniture, lack of mirror outside bathroom, lack of soap dish in shower, etc.

In addition to the various Chowhound recommendations and articles we printed from online archives of Wine Spectator and the New York Times, we found two food books to be very helpful as we trekked around:

Carla Capalbo, The Food and Wind Lover’s Companion to Tuscany (2002).
and
Eyewitness Travel Guides’ A Taste of Tuscany (Guido Stecchi, ed. 2001).

I also recommend taking a real pocket dictionary, not just a phrase book with "menu decoder," which we found to be woefully inadequate.

And now, on to the chow.

On the day we arrived (a Saturday), we wandered around Florence in the afternoon and wound up in a nameless bar/paticceria off the beaten track just across Viale Ariosto from Piazza Torquato Tasso. There was a newspaper article on the wall drawing attention to their homemade gelato, and it really was something special, the pine nut flavor in particular.

In the evening, we hungrily headed straight to Il Ritrovo (Via de Pucci) for dinner based on the raves on this board. We had no trouble finding it -- the archway and stairs were well-illuminated with both electric light and a large citron candle. There was only one other table occupied when we arrived (a little boy, a young woman, and an elderly woman, all of whom appeared to be friends/relatives of the owners) at 8 p.m., but by the time we left at 10:30 the place was hopping and nearly every table was filled, mostly with Italians (indeed, the proprietors seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all and had started to run out of things). We started with complimentary flutes of sparkling wine and two antipasti – a plate of mixed Tuscan specialties and a bruschetta. My wife had a pasta dish with wild mushrooms while I had one with slightly wider noodles covered in a sauce of tomato and ground venison (I think) (described as "like a cow, but lives in the forest, but not with horns, the woman"). I had a pork chop and my wife had a veal escallop, each in interesting sauces. We also split a mixed salad. We later shared a huge and delicious piece of tiramisu and two cups of tea for desert. While the food was not particularly elegant or creative, it was an excellent, solid meal in a wonderfully warm and friendly atmosphere – the owners really are great people. Having completely gorged ourselves on dinner, with water and a bottle of wine, we left satisfied and happy for E 93.

The next day, Sunday, we had a quick lunch in a little bar called something like Café de Te just across the street from the Pitti palace. Despite the touristy location the menu was Italian only and we had good grilled focaccia, nice salad, and drinks for a few Euros.

Later in the afternoon we had gelato at Vivoli. Good stuff, nice atmosphere.

That evening, we set out in search of bistecca alla Fiorentina. Sostanza was closed so we headed to Parione (on a little street of the same name) instead. It turned out to be a real disappointment. We weren’t as hungry as we had been the previous day so we decided to split antipasti and primi. We had a simple fava bean salad with chunks of pecorino and, after being told that they were out of the first two pasta dishes we requested, an asparagus risotto. For the main course we had bistecca for two, cut vertically in three pieces on each side of the bone and served on a big wooden cutting board with a bit of salad and some herb-baked potatoes. The steak was good, but not noticeably better than the T-bones I make on the Weber in my back yard. I think something was off with the grill temperature, because the outer edges were overdone even though the center was quite rare. (BTW, the menu described the beef as “Angus” which I presume means that it was not a cut of real Chianina.) The potatoes were cold and what should have been a fresh crispy crust was leathery. When the bill came, it included an E 6 cover charge (2 x E 3), a 10% service charge (including 10% of the cover, minor but annoying double counting) and they had charged us for two primi when we only had one. They reluctantly removed the extra item without adjusting the service charge, but at that point I was too fed up to hassle with them further. One antipasta, one prima, bistecca for two, water, and a bottle of house wine came to a whopping E 107. Overall, the food was acceptable, but nothing special, and we were treated coldly throughout the evening and left feeling like our pockets had been picked.

On Monday we had a morning sweet at Pasticceria Robiglio (via Tosinghi 11) and later a great light lunch at Cantinetta Dei Verrazzano (via dei Tavolini 18), which is small wood-paneled place with great breads and meats. The specialita Verrazzano contained various hot open faced sandwiches on special breads from Il Fornaio Galli and the various sausages and cheeses were great, too. Highly recommended.

Later in the afternoon we had tea at La Via del Te (Piazza Ghiberti 22) which, unlike anyplace else in Florence has real leaf tea in hundreds of varieties. A bit pricey, and if you order biscotti you’ll get essentially Danish butter cookies, but the real tea was refreshing.

We had pizza for dinner at Il Pizzaiuolo (Via De Macci 113), which was disappointing. The brick oven and atmosphere were nice, and the ingredients fresh, but the crust was puffy, flimsy, and lame – Domino’s style, only even more insubstantial. I suppose I may have excessively high standards for pizza having lived most of my life in Chicago and New Haven, but I can't understand why people speak highly of this place.

On Tuesday we had an afternoon snack of crostini at a bar in Greve-in-Chianti and dinner at Montagliari, on the road from Greve to Castellina just outside Panzano. We were the only patrons, and our hosts were incredibly gracious, lit the fireplace just for us, etc. The food was good but nothing special. My wife’s pasta with wild mushrooms was bland compared to the one at Il Ritrovo. My tortelloni w/ truffle sauce was ok. We shared a main dish of rabbit and were disappointed that it was a roulade of rabbit meat and not an actual roast. Tiramisu and gelato for desert were acceptable. With half-bottle of wine and coffee, the meal came to E 63. I got the sense that it may be a tour-bus stop in season. Lots of tables and a menu accompanied by an amusingly poor translation – lemon gelato translated as “ice cream with balsamic vinegar,” for example.

On Wednesday we logged a lot of kilometers. We first drove to Lucca, one of the most delightful places we visited on our trip. The town is surrounded by a wide wall on which you can circumnavigate the town on foot or bicycle with a bird’s eye view. The interior is composed of many pretty squares and the tourist traffic was relatively light. We had a light lunch at Taddeucci (piazza San Michele), a paticceria in the same family for 120 years, made up of traditional quiche-like vegetable cakes and buccellato, a bread-like cake with raisins and fennel.

From there we drove to Pisa to see the obligatory sights. I suppose I don’t regret making the stop, but what a dump! The grassy square with the tower, duomo and baptistery is overrun with tourists and souvenir stalls and has a theme-park-like quality. The rest of the city is dirty and run down. We did have a nice snack at Paticceria Salza (Borgo Stretto 46), which has a nice atmosphere and has been around since the 1920s.

For dinner, we craved seafood, and waffled between heading to Livorno on the coast to the south or Viarregio to the north. We opted for the latter because of its proximity to the autostrada for a convenient late-night trip home. After some difficulty getting our bearings in the dark after we had parked, we ate at Gusmano (via Reggia 58) which, according to the Stecchi guide, has fresh fish brought in from the boats twice daily. The meal was excellent. We didn’t order antipasti but were given complimentary samples of a risotto-like dish based on barley with tomato and seafood. I then had sea bass ravioli, which were wonderful, while my wife had a seafood risotto. As main courses we had, respectively, a mixed fish grill (calamari, fish filet, and unusual prawns with long, narrow claws) and grilled filet of the day with fried vegetables. It was all presented very artfully and was truly delicious. No space left for desert but they gave us a few complementary sweets to go with our coffee. Service was good and Gusmano himself visited the table several times to see how things were going. With half-bottle of wine and water, it came to E 74, a very good value for fresh seafood and elegant presentation.

On Thursday we started the day in Montpulciano, a pretty hillside town without hordes of tourists. We had lunch at Caffe Poliziano (via Voltaia Nel Corso 27, open 7am -1am without a break), a famous café with art nouveau style décor which opened in 1868 and was frequented by Carducci, Pirandello, and Fellini. The lofty rooms have a great view of the valley. We had crostini, salad, and gnocchi with tomato sauce.

In the afternoon, we visited the estate Fattoria Del Colle outside Trequanda (looked like a cute town, although we didn’t stop) on the road toward Asciano and Belsedere for wine and olive oil tasting.

By early evening we made it to Montalcino, where we had dinner at a simple café built into the walls of the fortress called Porta al Cassero. It was packed with Italians and was plain and simple but easily the best value of the trip. We shared an antipasta plate of various Tuscan meats. My wife had a white bean soup over bread and I had a tomato soup, both of which were excellent. My wife then had very simply roasted rabbit while I had tongue with a green herb sauce. Both were garnished with potato and salad. We shared a side salad, grilled vegetables, half liter of local house wine, and coffee. An enormous amount of food for an astounding E 40. Not gourmet dining but authentic and satisfying.

We began the next day with a quick stop at the famous butcher shop in Panzano, Antica Macelleria Cecchini (via XX Luglio 11)(just off the main road from Greve, not in the old town). In one of the rooms, classical music was playing and various meats, cheeses and wine are laid out on a table for complimentary tasting. Good stuff. Unfortunately US Customs seized the salami we purchased (and which had been vacuum wrapped for us) when we flew home to Boston.

From there we drove to Volterra, another nice hillside town famous for alabaster production and nearly devoid of tourists.

From there we went to San Gimignano, which is also a pretty hillside town but completely overrun with tourists and tending toward theme-parkishness. We walked around a bit and had a very good piece of mushroom pizza from a hole in the wall (literally) near the central square and then headed back home.

That evening, we ate in the restaurant of Villa La Palagina, where we were staying (see above for directions), and had one of our best culinary experiences in recent memory. As I mentioned the place has only been open (in its present incarnation, anyway) since 10/02. The restaurant is headed by a young chef, Federico Nencini, who is clearly trying to make a name for himself judging by the various awards from international competitions in a scrapbook as you enter the restaurant. The Villa also offers culinary tourism packages with various hours of cooking classes by Nencini and local food excursions. We started by sharing a goose carpaccio. I then had gnocchi stuffed with chestnuts in a pumpkin-based sauce that was exquisite while my wife had a pasta over octopus with lemon herb sauce that was also wonderful. We both had rack of lamb for our main course. The ribs were much smaller and more tender than the New Zealand lamb one usually gets in the U.S. There were six ribs on the plate, cooked perfectly, laid over a base of honey braised artichokes covered with thin slices of aromatic pecorino. For desert I had puff pastry with gelato and candied pears while my wife had a vanilla/chocolate mousse. With a bottle of wine, water, and coffee the meal came to E 94, well worth the price. It’s a bit out of the way if you're not staying there – about 40 minutes from downtown Florence – but well worth the trip.

We started the next day at the weekly market in Greve in Chianti as well as the one in Castellina in Chianti. The one in Greve was much more interesting and lively. We also went into the Antica Macellerina on Greve's main square, which was really impressive to see (also included a free sausage/wine tasting room and cheese cellar).

We then headed to Siena. It’s a nice city with an old world feel, more traffic restrictions than most which makes walking a pleasure, and large enough to disperse the tourist crush effectively (at this time of year, anyway). Most convenient parking just outside the walls is by the stadium/fortress. We had lunch at Osteria Le Logge (via del porrione 33), long considered a favorite of locals. The small main dining room has high ceilings, wood cabinets and paneling, lace curtains, and elegant tablecloths and flower arrangements. A large table next to us contained a small family wedding party. The staff were real pros, providing probably the best service we had in Italy. I started with spinach/ricotta dumplings and my wife had hand-tied bow pasta in a tomato/olive sauce. Then I had a perfect filet of Chianina beef –wow!—while my wife had duck (duck was somewhat overdone to my taste; probably should have specified rare or medium-rare as I did with the beef). We also saw other tables being served massive bistecca cuts 2-3 times as large as the one we had at Parione. Finally, we had a more-creative-than-usual insalata misto tossed with raspberries, soft cheese, nuts and exquisite cherry tomatoes. While we had planned to have just a simple lunch, this turned into one of the culinary highlights of the trip; the place has real class. With water and a glass of wine, it came to E 70.

For the evening we had secured reservations at Centanni, in the hills of Bagno a Ripoli just south of Florence, famed for both its food and floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. We had some difficulty finding it in the dark – don't trust guidebooks that say it is well marked from the center of Bagno a Ripoli – and eventually had to ask for help in a storefront. You need to head uphill out of town on Via Roma and, just before reaching a gas station on a plateau, there is a single sign pointing you down a long, narrow alley to the restaurant. Our reservation had secured a window table but I was somewhat disappointed with the view – it doesn't look out over Florence and so the only thing visible in the dark were floodlighted flowering trees in the courtyard. Nice, but not a spectacular view of Florence, which is what I expected. The place was packed with well-to-do Florentines, including another wedding party, our second of the day. The food was ok but not spectacular. Still stuffed from Le Logge earlier in the day, we skipped antipasti. My wife had the ribbollita (very thick and filling vegetable soup, almost like a bread pudding) while I had pigeon ravioli. For the main course my wife had the signature dish – a chicken breast in mushroom sauce, while I had wild boar stew. Frankly, the chicken was nothing special and the stew was extremely greasy – although I understand that may be, literally, "the nature of the beast." All in all, the experience was OK but pricey and not spectacular. Might have felt differently later in the summer if we had been able to look out over the Tuscan hills and a sunset. With water and a half-bottle of wine, it came to E 79.

All in all, a great week with some great food, thanks in no small part to the suggestions we found here. Culinary highlights: Villa La Palagina (Figline Valdarno), Le Logge (Siena), and Gusmano (Viareggio) – each worth a special trip just for the food! Lowlights: Parione and Il Pizzaiuolo (both in Florence). Biggest bargain: Porta al Cassero (Montalcino).

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