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Italy trip--confirming some recs found here, disputing others and adding some of my own

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Italy trip--confirming some recs found here, disputing others and adding some of my own

JmVikmanis | Oct 17, 2003 09:42 AM

We recently spent 3+ weeks in Italy, on the Amalfi coast and in Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria. With over 40 meals to enjoy while we were there, I spent a lot of time researching this and other websites for restaurant recommendations before we left. We went to four Michelin two star places--Arnolfo, Vissani, La Tenda Rossa, and Don Alfonso--about which I will be posting extensively on the Opinionated About site. We also went to several of the places Chowhounds recommended and found a few places of our own that I feel confident recommending to other hounds. Here's my report on them.

Il Postale in Citta di Castello was recommended on a couple of Chowhound posts. It is a cute/attractive little place in a cute/attractive little town in Umbria about 30 miles or so from Gubbio. The owners are young 30-somethings who have taken an old postal garage and turned it into a very modern restaurant with hanging halogen lights, gigantic ceramic plates on the walls and beautiful stained glass room dividers. They serve modern dishes too like scallops with lime and cheese sauce and a dollop of caviar. My selections also included a pasta tortellini stuffed with beef and mushrooms and a sauce that contained an interesting sort of jellied bacon. My main was roast lamb with herbs, onion and porcini. Four of us each had a menu and three very good bottles of wine and the bill for lunch was only 372 euros. I'm guessing that this place will become a two star very soon and it deserves to. I'm also thinking that the elegant but in need of repair old mansion across the street from the restaurant will eventually make a lovely boutique hotel when this couple really gets their act together and starts to expand.

La Chiusa in Montefellonico near Pienza is one of those places mentioned in almost every guidebook and often posted about on food and travel websites. Chowhound has had several posts about it. Wine Spectator featured its chef (one of the few women chefs in Italy) in a full page picture in their special on Tuscany a couple of years ago. The food is fabulous as advertised and we were even treated to a stroll through the kitchen to meet chef Dania, a cute little trick who had cooked many dinners that evening and looked like one of her better dressed guests. She didn't even appear to have raised a sweat. This place is a never fail favorite. I started with a soufflé like potato pie then split a pasta course with my friend. It was a sampler of three different pastas--gnocchi with ragu, tagliatelle with tomato and ravioli with ricotta. Each was excellent. My main course was duck with wild fennel. I love duck and I love fennel. Having them together was almost more than I could wish for. One of our selected wines was a Brunello di Montalcino from the fabulous 1997 vintage. What a treat. At approx. 525 euros the price for the meal was in the same ballpark as the two stars we ate at but so was the food.

Taverna del Pescatori was another Chowhound recommendation that we struggled to find one night while we were staying just outside Spoleto. It's official address is in Trevi but it's outside of the town on a kind of frontage road that parallels the freeway. I think we drove past it three times before finding the correct entrance. The CH recommendation touted the food and the wonderful welcome and hospitality of the owner. Right on! Though the interior of the restaurant looked nice, the owner more or less compelled us to sit outside on his terrace where we could hear the sound of the babbling brook flowing by. It was perfect. He translated the menu for us with enthusiasm leaving us with the impression that we simply had to taste each and every dish. But we had to choose and we seemed to choose well since everything tasted delicious--panzanella with crayfish, spaghetti also with crayfish and rabbit deboned and made into a terrine, finally chocolate cake and chocolate mousse. We sampled white and red wines of the nearby small but excellent Montefalco region. The red, made from the Sagrantino grape, rivals if not surpasses the famous Brunello di Montalcino. As the place filled up and things got busier our host left us in the charge of a much younger waiter who seemed to try extra hard to please us. At the end of the meal the proud papa introduced the young waiter as his son. It looks like this place will be welcoming for years to come. Worth the trouble to find it.

The fixed price menu with wine pairings that Castello Banfi near Montalcino offers was recommended highly by one Chowhound poster. She was right. It was a great way to taste some excellent wines and a fun lunch overall. The winery hosts the lunch in its taverna. (I think they also have a more formal dining room but the tasting lunch is only served in the taverna and it was the perfect setting.) It appeared to us that many of the diners were in the restaurant business or the wine trade and were being courted by Banfi to feature their wines, but it is open to the public who just want to taste as well. Because the menu is identical for the entire assemblage the place realizes some economies of scale in food and service which they pass on to diners in cheap prices or, better put, good price/value ratio. Each course is paired with a Banfi wine and is designed to compliment or showcase that wine. Sorry I didn't keep track of the wines but I did take note of the food courses--a plate of tuscan meats/sausage slices, minestrone, Tuscan Chianina beef with crispy potatoes, pecorino cheese with honey, and typical Tuscan cookies and coffee--no grappa for me. At 55 euros per person and including full glasses of wine with each of the 5 courses, this was a real bargain. After lunch we strolled the grounds, visited the balsameria where they age their balsamic vinegar in barrels, and went to the tasting room for more sips of even more Banfi wines. Banfi is US owned and markets like US companies do, more aggressively than the more laissez-faire wineries we visited with Italian owners. I have to admit my experience with Napa and Sonoma wineries causes me to like the US approach.

While my experiences agreed with the recommendations found in Chowhound postings on the above places, I unfortunately must say I could not agree with the recommendations on one of the places most consistently recommended here and on other foodie sites including the infamous Burke and Wells--Il Ritrovo in Florence. I guess it just proves that even the best can have a bad night. We were just disappointed after reading so many good things. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't as good as all the hype had led me to expect. Perhaps its success is starting to take a toll. It was packed on a Tuesday night with every seat filled maybe even with a tour group. This was apparently overtaxing the kitchen and food came out of the kitchen at an uneven rate such that one of us would be eating while the other three watched, then two might eat while the other two looked on, etc. One dish that we ordered never did arrive. Food was good but not spectacular also. The tomato bruschetta couldn't hold a candle to that we had at Ai Quattro Venti, a small restaurant on the square in Montepulciano about which no one has ever written--except me and until now as you'll see below. For all of you who think this is one of the best little places in the world, my apologies for even daring to suggest that it might not be perfect, but unfortunately that's our assessment and we're sticking to it.

So what new places did I find that I can recommend? Here are two.

Ai Quattro Venti is a very small restaurant right on the main square of Montepulciano. It is worth getting there early for lunch because it fills up almost as soon as it opens. I had the best bruschetta of my life there (and the best gnocchi on a previous trip).The bruschetta featured perfect chunks of really red, very ripe sweet tomatoes, slivers of basil and hearty olive oil atop lightly toasted Tuscan bread. Sounds like nothing special, just your standard bruschetta but the stars must have been perfectly aligned and the flavors melded perfectly and I could have sat there forever just eating that perfectly simple, wonderful dish. My friend had a fabulous dish of red and yellow peppers with mushy potatoes in oil. Somehow the substance of the potatoes did wonders to bring out the best in the peppers--and the oil for that matter. The gnocchi I had this time was in gorgonzola with arugula and walnuts, very, very rich and good but not as good as the gnocchi I had on a previous trip. That was pillow soft and served in a parmesan sauce with sage leaves and lots of butter. Yummm!

Il Vignale in Radda in Chianti is a place we've likewise now eaten at twice and it didn't disappoint us on the second visit. This time I had the panzanella and the day's special, a slice of veal steak with porcinis and crispy rosemary potatoes. There's something about the décor of the restaurant that pleases me immensely. It's rustic and elegant at the same time with a big old sideboard covered with liquors and grappas and windows that open onto the whole of the Tuscan countryside. The food is likewise consistently good IMO. I have to add the IMO because I must admit that our traveling companions just didn't find as much to like in this place as I did. If you're in the area, check it out for yourself and see if you agree with me or with them.

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