I went to Italy with a long To-Do list. We saw the leaning tower and Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, we climbed the Duomo in Florence and saw 'The David” in the Accademia museum, we hiked from Vernazza to Riomaggiore on a perfect sunny day in Cinque Terre and took the boat back, and we rode bicycles around the walls of Lucca and saw a Puccini concert in the church of San Giovani. All were great experiences, but my To-Do list mostly was filled with the traditional regional foods that I wanted to try. It was a great success. OK, here is my list, might as well go in Italian order and start with...
Charcuterie. I am usually not that big a fan of salami and such, but “when in Tuscany.....” We tried many types of prosciutto and salami throughout the trip, but the absolute standout was the antipaste we had at Vineria I' Santi in Lucca. When you walk into the restaurant you can't miss the ginormous Tuscan ham at its own special carving station in the front room. We ordered the 'gran piatti' and when first brought to the table we were overwhelmed by the amazing aromas of the cured meats. Hand carved tuscan ham, 3 or 4 types of salami, and even some Lardo that simply melted in your mouth. I generally dislike even the rim of fat around standard prosciutto, but this almost pure pork fat was like butter on a piece of bread. Also served with tasty tomato crostini. All very wine friendly and a heavenly start to our dinner. (although I'll add that I had an urge for an 81 mg aspirin soon afterward-- even on vacation, I could “sense” my arteries clogging as the lardo melted joyously in my mouth ;-)
Then there was the Garfagnana ham at Ristorante Giglio in Lucca that was so lean and so tasty. Served aside one crostini of black truffles and another with tomato. Yum. Speaking of truffles...
Tartufo (truffles): I've never understood what all the fuss was about truffles, other than they are rare and expensive and so thusly over-rated. But during an extended wine-tasting aperitivo session at Pitti Gola e Cantina in Florence, we ordered a small cheese plate to accompany our wine. The proprietor, Zeno, who deserves and entire post of his own, decided that we needed to try his newly acquired truffles. Next to our cheese he served us some black and white truffles that were fine, but a crostini with black truffle and butter was divine. Subtle flavor of the truffle and the yummy butter just melded together for a very tasty treat. I can get used to that.
Ribollita: Tuscan vegetable soup, made thick and almost stew-like with the addition of dried Tuscan bread. (They have to do something with all that horrid Tuscan bread ;-) Tried this at Trattoria Mario in Florence and it was very tasty. Thick and hearty and flavorful but not as good as...
Zuppa de Ceci: I have had this at home and love it, but Mario made it great. Topped with some great sweet olive oil, this soup makes me smile just thinking about it.
Farro (spelt): OK ,it's the world's oldest grain etc. etc, had to try it. After a cool damp morning strolling the streets of Lucca, soup was the requisite starter for lunch at Da Giullio. We tried Farro soup with lentils and also with beans and both were outstanding. Farro was just like barley and the soups were exceptionally good.
In a different form we tried pasta made from Farro with rabbit ragu at Giglio, also in Lucca. The ragu was great and the farro pasta was a nice change of pace from the rest of the pasta we enjoyed this trip. It was a bit more “al dente” the regular pasta (similar to Barillo Plus boxed pasta that is made from legume flours-- but fresher and better). Speaking of pasta...
Cinghiale: Pappardelle al cinghiale (wild boar ragu) quickly became my favorite Tuscan pasta dish. It was very good everywhere, but was exceptional at Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori in Florence. (this small Osteria that seats a max of 20 people was so good and so much fun) the pasta here was so “fine” and smooth unlike some fresh pasta that can get a bit “doughy” and the sauce was perfect. (e.g. CasaLinga in the Oltrarno had a great sauce but a “doughy-er” pasta). Also was good at Hosteria de Desco in Florence.
Speaking of cinghiale, I enjoyed cinghiale stewed with olives and served with polenta at Buca di Sant Antonio in Lucca. The dish was very rich and the olives were surprisingly bitter, but in a pleasant way. Yummy!
Coniglio: I never got to eat rabbit in a “whole” form, but greatly enjoyed Tagliatellini with rabbit and asparagus sauce at Osteria Dei Cavalieri in Pisa. The pasta was perfect and the sauce was delicate and brothy. A completely different experience than the rabbit sauce described above from Giglio with Farro pasta that was so rich, it hid the subtle flavor of the coniglio.
Pesto:Pesto was a mixed bag on this trip. We are big pesto fans and had high expectations for pesto while in Liguria. Our first try was the best. We had both gnocchi and trofie al pesto at Vulnetia for our first meal in Vernazza. The pesto was perfetto! Nice coarse texture as it should be, deliciously sweet and fruity olive oil and just the right amount of garlic and pine nuts (made me realize I am using way too many pine nuts in my own homemade pesto). We sat at a table outside under umbrellas right on the main piazza in Vernazza, and even though it started to rain quite heavily before our meal was done,we didn't care, we were basking in the glory of pesto perfetto :-)
From here the pesto experience went downhill. The pesto at Belforte was horrid. Pesto at Trattoria al Sandro was fair. Pesto trofie at Trattoria Billy in Manarola was good, but nothing dreamy. (BTW-- “trofie” are little pasta twists designed for ideal coating with pesto) On a related note...
Testaroli: is a “pasta” that is actually made like a giant crepe or pancake that is cut into triangles or rhomboids and then often served with pesto. We saw them selling pre-made rolls of testaroli everywhere in CT but didn't get to try it until we were in Lucca at I' Santi. The testaroli was fine, a bit chewy-er than most pasta, and it was coated with a pesto "balsamico"? that was quite good, but different than typical pesto.
Pansotti: with walnut sauce!: We ate a lot of good pasta on this trip, and we usually order 2 different one so we can share, or switch plates halfway through. This was the one pasta dish that we carefully, evenly, split the odd ravioli and both wanted to lick the plate clean. This was the highlight of our dinner at Trat.al Sandro in Vernazza. The ricotta filled ravioli were perfect, and the walnut cream sauce with a dusting of cinnamon was fantastic. Oops, I am salivating on my keyboard just thinking about it now!
Porcini: We knew porcini mushrooms would be in season, so this was a must on our To-Do list. Papparedelle with porcinis at Osteria Miranda in Lucca was very nice. But our first meal in Italy, in Pisa at Osteria dei Cavalieri we tried tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms that was fantastic. So simple, so good. A great welcome after a long harrowing journey.
Did not have such good luck the next day at Vineria de Piazza in Piazza delle Vettovagli in Pisa. Plotkin's book said “skip the pasta, fish is great” and we should have heeded his warning. The pasta was fresh and fine, but the porcinis were cooked in a way that made them unpleasantly slimey, the kind of slime that give mushrooms a bad name. Flavor OK, but hard to get by the poor cooking. (The fish here BTW was pretty good-- Orata, sea bream, was light and delicate topped with tomatoes. And sitting outside on the piazza with the adjacent market and fruit market made you feel miles away from the chaos and kitsch of the leaning tower.) Back to the mushrooms...
Risotto: my wife is a huge risotto fan so was knew we would have to seek it out while in Italy. (even though it is not necessarily a specialty of Tuscany.) Unfortunately our first risotto was a complete bust. The risotto with saffron and liquerza at Diladdarno in the Oltrarno in Florence was horrible. It was so salty that it was inedible. We had high hopes for this restaurant. It was posted on Plotkin's website as an extra add on to the book, so we figured it was a recent review and should be great. Everything served here was way too salty but the risotto was the worst.(and the place is lit up so bright it seems uncomfortable). Plotkin was correct about the scamerita di maiale that was moist and tender and tasty once you scraped off some of the giant coarse salt crystals. But I digress, back to the porcinis..
So we finally tried risotto again at Buca di Santonio in Lucca and hit a winner with the risotto with Porcini mushrooms. A bit soupy-er than most risottos we are used to, but it tasted great. Then later the same day, had an excellent porcini risotto at Giglio that was even better than Buca. So we got our fill of risotto on our last day in Italy (the day now to be known in our home as “il giorno di gola” or “the Day of Gluttony”:-).
Pasta con Burro e Salvia: This is a dish I try to make at home often, because I love fresh sage and always grow it in my garden. It always comes out good, but I'm never sure if I am doing it “right”, so I wanted to try it in Italy. At Trattoria casalinga I had ravioli with butter and sage and it was quite yummy. Simple and pure taste of the butter and sage, better once you add a touch of grated parm cheese.- Ha, just like homemade ;-)
Tortelli Luchese: With 4 nights in Lucca we knew that the classic tortelli (stuffed yellow egg pasta ) with ragu would be high on our list. It was great everywhere we tried it. Excellent at Buca Sant Antonio, wonderful at Osteria Miranda, and very very tasty at Da Giullio.
Pizza:We knew that Tuscany and Liguria were not the places to find great pizza. But I found this post on Katie Parla's blog that was quite a find : http://www.parlafood.com/la-bussola-f...
Real Neapolitan pizza in Florence to be found at La Bussola. The crust was perfect. Thin and crisp, yet doughy, holey and chewy enough to satisfy. I had the Pizza Margherita “DOC”. That means only the finest local ingredients- Bufala mozzarella, and San Marzano tomatoes, a touch of fresh basil, and what else do you need. We also tried a sausage pizza that had the standard cheese and sauce and was quite good with very fresh tasty sausage topping. Only complaint is that the fresh mozzarella is so moist that it gives off a bit of water forming pools on top of the pizza. This is easily remedied, but if not careful it could render your perfect crispy crust into a soggy mess. It was too nice a day to eat inside, so we got a table in the outdoor oasis they try to create, but it is hard to not notice that you are basically sitting in a parking lot, with more traffic that you would expect on this side street.. Oh well, ambiance-shmambiance, the pizza was good and the beers were cold!
Also tried a pizza in Lucca at the recommended Da Felice. They specialize in cecini pizza (a chickpea flour crust) but it didn't look that appealing so we stuck with the standard crust. It was fine, baked in a brick oven, but nothing compared to the flavor and texture of La Bussola.
Tuscan Beef: We are not big beef eaters, especially when barely cooked rare, so we never bothered trying the giant Bistecca alla fiorentino. We did have an amazingly great Tagliata di Manzo con rucola and parmegiano at Ost. Cavalieri in Pisa. The steak was cooked perfect medium. Juicy and tender. The arugula was incredibly good and the parmigiano was incredible (can't find cheese this good at home). Drizzled with some fine olive oil and a twist a black pepper this was one of our favorite overall dishes of the trip. The subtle bitterness of the arugula and the exquisite parm cheese blended magically with the beef. It may sound simple or boring, but this dish was really good. I love arugula- does that make me an elitist? ;-) We also had some decent sliced steak at Miranda in Lucca (but served a little too rare for our liking) but this first taste of Tuscany was hard to beat.
Fagioli: I know many people don't get excited about beans, but we are big bean fans and the Fagioli al' Uccelletto at Tattoria Mario were so good I wish I could eat them daily. The Tuscan canellini beans are prepared in tomatoey sauce and seasoned with just the right amount of fresh sage to make them incredibly good. They are often served with sausages, or at Mario's the big hit was with baccala (cod fish). Had some again at CasaLinga that were good, but we wished Mario's was open weekends so we could go back for more.
Bronzino: I decided that I would eat bronzino every chance I got, and I was not once disappointed. This Mediterranean sea bass is so light and wonderful, I find it hard to pass up, especially when you know it is fresh. (completely different than the somewhat oily fish known as Chilean sea bass in the US, that is actually not a sea bass at all, bronzino is similar to the stripped bass found in New England in the summer.) First try at Cavalieri in Pisa was a fillet served alongside mussels and clams and a few roasted tomatoes. Yummy. Then in Vernazza at Belforte - bronzino baked in sea salt was very nice. The present you with the fish before cooking to show you the giant mound of sea salt. When served it is already fileted and presented with a small block of the salt and some lemon. Very fancy indeed. My wife found it a bit bland, but this was as pure and fresh as a fish can taste. A drizzle of olive oil and your set, and surprisingly it does not taste too salty. Also at Belforte, bronzino baked with potatoes and tomatoes (apparently a Vernazza thing) was very nice, but the bronzino baked with potatoes, tomatoes and olives at Tratoria Il Baretti was better in every way. Then again at al Sandro- a grilled bronzino that was stuffed with herbs was super. More casual here, the waitress brings a spare plate and then expertly filets the fish table-side.
Frutti di mare: Spaghetti “Bruno” at Belforte was very good with mussels , clams and shrimp with garlic and tomatoes. We shared Pasta with scampi and mussels at Cantini de Mananan in Corniglia as part of a great lunch there (although the scampi served whole are more work than they are worth). Spaghetti “Billy” at the eponymous trattoria in Manarola contained 4 large shrimp and a ton of tiny “krill-like” shrimp with peppers tomatoes and garlic. It was fine, but a bit bland for my taste.
No question the best I had was at Il Barreti in Vernazza. The spaghetti with sweet tender mussels and the best clams I've ever tasted were served with plenty of garlic, great olive oil and parsley. Perfect!
Acciughe (Anchovies): Like most first time visitors I had never experienced fresh anchovies and was looking forward to trying them. My first taste was “Tagame” at Vulnetia. Anchovies are baked with, you guessed it, potatoes and tomatoes. It was very good. Tagame at Il Baretta was different with less tomatoes but better anchovies. I also had acciughe al limone at Billy's in Manarola. These were salted anchovies served cold with lemon and oil. Quite tasty and still a world away from the anchovies I have known from Ceasar salads at home.
Dolce We are not big on sweets, especially after a big meal with wine, and certainly not for breakfast, but that all changed when we discovered Il Parata in Vernazza. Two Sicilian brothers settled in Vernazza to spread the joy of Sicilian pastries. Amazing pastry with awesome ricotta cream, or the fabulous orange cream are irresistible. We went to Il Parata each morning for breakfast, (or I hate to admit it, after our first breakfast), for their amazing pastries and good coffee. We also went for dessert one night for canoli filled with that delicate soft ricotta cream and panne cotta with berries that left you wanting for more. And to top it all off the 2 brothers are super friendly and have a sense of humor that puts a smile on the face of every customer, of course it is hard not to smile after enjoying the cream or fruit filled pastries. In 3 days in Vernazza, we made 4 trips to Il Parata, and I won't admit to how may pastries we ate. This is why in 3 days in Vernazza we never had any desire for even a spoonful of gelato....
Gelato: I will be of no help if you ask to find the best gelato, because I loved every gelato I tried. I had gelato in Florence at Grom, gelateria Neri and Perche No? and all were fabulous. For chocolate the Cioccolato Amaro at Neri was the best, darkest richest chocolate, but all were good. I mixed chocolate with either nocciola (hazelnut) caffe or both. In Lucca, Gelateria Vaneta was recommended to us and it was so good, there was no reason to try anywhere else. mmmmmmm gelato!
Cioccolato caldo: Caffe Rivoire is located right on Piazza della Signora in Florence and is a very overpriced place for a coffee or drink due to its prime location. But I had read about the hot chocolate there and it was a must try. On a cool Sunday morning the place was busy due to the Corrie la Vita (run for life) but I cozied up to the bar, elbow to elbow with locals, to enjoy the best hot chocolate ever. Ridiculously thick and creamy and oh so chocolatey and I will run out of adjectives if I try to go on.
Three words: Dee- Lish-Ous!
Caffe: Enjoyed plenty of good cappuccini and caffe macchiato during our trip, but the standout best cup of coffee was a caffe macchiato I had at Di Simo in Lucca. What can I say other than it was perfect.
Wine: Discussion of the wines we tried , and the enotecas, would require a lengthy report of its own, but I will say that the best “house” wine we tried was definitely at Trattoria Mario in Florence. A Chianti from the town of Rufina (no, not Ruffino) that was exceptional, especially for the 6e per ½ liter price.
Grappa: Had to try a few grappas, and the one I had at Pitti Gola e Cantina from Brunello was excellent. Even better was the dessert of 'Uva sotto Grappa' we had at Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia. There are shelves above the dining tables all around that are filled with giant grapes that are soaking in grappa. Each jar labeled with a date. You eat the booze soaked grapes and then drink the rest of the grappa. Also good when dipped in with biscotti. Grappa is very strong and not for everyone, but if you enjoy a stiff martini, or the fiery taste of straight whisky, you'll love grappa as a digestivo.
Believe it or not this outrageously long report does not cover all the food we ate in Italy. And of course there were quite a few other tasty treats we discovered that were not on our To-Do list. And, there were a few things on my To-Do list that I didn't get to. I tried focaccio di Recco, but only from a shop in Vernazza, and it was bland, soggy, greasy, and I hope not a genuine example of what it could be elsewhere. I never made it to Sostanza to try the chicken in butter sauce :-( I also never got around to trying the sciacchetra dessert wine of CT, but did try Vin Santo with cantucci (little biscotti) for dipping that was quite good. And Biadina, the liqueur of Lucca served with pine nuts....OK, I'll stop now.
All in all, we enjoyed our taste of Italy and I brought home a 6 lb souvenir to wear over my belt.
(It's a good thing the bread in Tuscany was so bad or my “souvenir” would have been 10 lbs).