Just returned from a wonderful 11-day visit to Italy, and thought I would render a report on my dining experiences there:
Rome: just one night in the Eternal City, and I had always wanted to have authentic carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes) so we went to Da Giggieto, in the old ghetto, near the Tiber. Very nice place, though heavy on the tourists (also a number of locals, though, so can't be that bad). The artichokes--which were on display in front of the restaurant--were excellent, though we had a LONG wait before our main courses arrived, and they were minuscule. Dinner for two, with wine (Brunello di Montalcino) was 70 euros.
Florence: I have friends in Florence who took us out our first night to a very local place called "La Locanda Medecea" in the 'suburbs' near Vinci (a town called Cerreto Guidi). We had an incredible meal of assorted cured meats, tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms, bistecca alla fiorentina, and biscotti with vin santo for dessert, along with two kinds of chianti (the first was rather poor, so we replaced it with a second, called "Leonardo"). Not exactly easy to get to, though.
Also in Florence, at the suggestion of several friends, we ate at Zibibbo, a lovely restaurant in the countryside north of town (ten minutes from our hotel, not far from the train station) that is run by the ex-wife of the chef at Cibreo. The cuisine here is more inventive, and includes elements from Middle Eastern cooking (e.g., as an 'amuse gueule' while perusing the menu we were served a Florentine take on hummus with grissini). The meal was excellent, especially the pasta courses (including a squid ink pasta that blackened all our teeth for a spell) and very unusual main courses, such as a stuffed duck with bitter orange sauce. The desserts were, however, a bit spare. Dinner for four, with lots of wine, was 190 euros.
Also in Florence, at the suggestion of Joe H., a frequent contributor to this board, we went to Di Vinus, located in Otrarno in an area that we would have otherwise not discovered. He waxed rhapsodic about their bistecca alla fiorentina, so that was a given for our dinner, but this being early in our trip we were still doing four course dinners as a matter of course, so there was far more on our order. This place is more traditional that Zibibbo, but lacks a bit in the service department. For example, several of our orders were mishandled, resulting in one of our party having to wait for her primo while the rest of us had ours, and another of our friends losing out on his secondo altogether because they forgot to enter the order and then sold the last one. This was compensated by excellent food and by a free bottle of wine to take home (and a 10% discount). I would still recommend the place highly. Dinner for four, with drinks (and discount), 190 euros.
For lunch in Florence we had one disaster and one big success. The disaster was predictable--for lack of forethought we decided, after a morning at the Uffizi, just to grab a bite at one of the numerous joints that line the street near the Ponte Vecchio. I mean, how bad could it be? Well, the food was fine, if uninspired, but the bill was a ludicrous 70 euros for what we had (several soft drinks, some panini and some salads). Scandalous! The next day, having learned this lesson, we went to La Baruciola, in Otrarno near the Pitti Palace. What a nice place! Very quiet, rather dark, and tucked away where few tourists find it, it was lovely. A two course lunch, with lots of porcini mushrooms figuring into the equation (though no wine), was 65 euros for the four of us, less than we spent for fast food the day before.
San Gimignano: We had lunch in S.G. one day and though the caffe where we ate was not memorable, the place where we had gelato was. It was the Gelateria della Piazza (located in the big piazza in town) and was outstanding, probably the best we had in Italy. Go there--you will know it by the queue snaking outside.
Modena: We had expected our meal in Modena to be great, but were rather disappointed. Yes, everything we ordered featured balsamic vinegar somehow (including the gelato for dessert, which was great), but it just wasn't the experience we were hoping for. Perhaps it was the fact that it was a Monday, when a lot of places are closed (including the restaurants that were recommended by the Slow Food people). Still, our dinner was very good at Taverna dei Servi, and the staff were very friendly.
Mantova: Our first night in Mantova, after a hard day of driving and touring vinegar 'farms' in Modena called for a quiet dinner, and again, this being Tuesday, many places were closed (grrr). So we ate in the hotel downstairs from our hotel, the Osteria Broletto, and were very pleasantly surprised. The meal was great, especially the local specialty--tortellini with squash filling. We also tried a local wine, a sparkling red lambrusco, which was actually not bad and went well with the local cuisine. Dinner for two was 50 euros, with wine.
But the piece de resistance in Mantova was our dinner at Dal Pescatore, written up previously on these boards as perhaps the best restaurant in Italy (or even the world). I am not sure about that, but we did have a wonderful dinner there. Finding the place is tricky (the signs are small--and get smaller and more obscure the closer you are to the restaurant), but it is a gorgeous house with a very relaxed German Shepherd to keep you company while you wait for your table. The place has only about 8 tables in three rooms, and we were fortunate to have a room to ourselves (because we were the only Americans?). All the tables but one were occupied during the evening.
Overall the dinner was exceptional, but there were several kinks worth noting. For one, the music was atrocious--they were playing a CD that kept skipping, sending horrible piercing sounds into the dining hall that they seemed not too worked up about. Also, the place was very hot, yet when the windows were opened we were accosted by swarms of mosquitoes. So we either had to swelter or swat. We opted for swelter, removing our jackets after a while for comfort. And finally the service--though this may be a cultural thing--was a bit perfunctory and not especially friendly, other than from Mr. Santini himself, who came by several times to see if we had melted into puddles of sweat yet.
The food here is exquisite--very interesting preparations of exceptional ingredients make for a very lively dinner. We all went for the special set menu (which still gives you two to three options for each course, so the four of us did a lot of sharing of tastes around the table--perhaps another reason for seating us away from the other guests). Everything was fantastic, nothing disappointed, and despite the rather high cost of dinner here--the prix fixe is 110 euros--the wine list is very reasonable. As a result, our dinner for four, with several bottles and cocktails to start, was 625 euros.
Venice: Venice is rather famous, it seems, for lousy, expensive restaurants. Fortunately, we know of this reputation only through hearsay, since we managed to avoid it entirely. Our first dinner, at the recommendation of our hotel, was at Trattoria alla Madonna, near the Rialto. When she recommended this place I was sceptical, expecting everything near the Rialto to be very touristy and overpriced. However, this seems to be among the exceptions, as our dinner was very good indeed, and the place was packed by people who seemed knowledgable about food (though to be fair, they were all foreign). Service was very friendly, and we left in good spirits. Dinner for four, once again, 190 euros, with wine (this must be the going rate...).
Our second day we opted for a substantial lunch and a light dinner of small bites at the city's bacari (wine bars). So lunch was at Al Covo, in the Castello district. This is a wonderful restaurant, specializing in Venetian seafood dishes, where you should be warned they only take cash (including major foreign currencies). At lunch they offer a trattoria-style menu at a lower price than at dinner (31 euros per person for three courses), and we enjoyed it immensely. Their desserts were especially good. Lunch for two, with a bottle of wine, 90 euros.
Having decided that the 'tapas' concept might work better at lunch than at dinner, since the previous night we found many places were closed or had few dishes left, for our last lunch we aimed at a bacaro that the ticket seller at the Bomolo house recommended, called Osteria alla Botte, near S. Bartolomeo, near Rialto. This was a great place, very cozy, full of gondolieri (a good sign, I figured), and reasonable. As we waited for a table (the place is tiny) we had some wine and some 'tapas' dishes of squid and cheeses, all of which were excellent. The service was very friendly, and other than us and a table of French women, the clientele was resolutely local. Our lunch came to only 42 euros.
For our last dinner we had tremendous difficulty. We wanted desperately to go to Coste Sconta, per the recommendation of Chowhound Bill, but they were booked solid. Same for Al Covo (which we liked enough to return to), and all the other places that were recommended to us. We did manage a table at Fiaschetteria Toscana, but did not want Tuscan food for our last night in Venice (though it turns out that their name is misleading, and they serve typical local cuisine). So we ended up going to a small place called Ai Assassini, where the service was kind of iffy, though the food was good, if nothing to get excited about.
So, all in all a great trip! If anyone wants more info on any of these places, or on the various gelaterie we visited, drop me a line.